Twenty-one years ago before another election, the Labour Party of the day – which I represented – did not have the word sustainability in its manifesto. The term sustainable development was not yet created. However manifestos have always included policies which embrace social, environmental or economic issues.
As today’s politicians prepare for the 2005 election, I would urge them to consider number of issues.
Last year, research by the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board found that New Zealanders value quality of life and quality of the environment ahead of economic growth and don’t see link between the goals. This resonates with the importance of “place” in our lives and culture. New Zealanders connect place with where we live rather than as resource.
Listening to people is part of every politician’s job. If people value quality of life, then it’s up to our leaders to put it at the heart of policymaking. This is what has happened in the United Kingdom where the sustainability programme is embedded throughout government departments and provides the framework by which business is expected to behave.
Take simple example. The New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development recently conducted research about eco-labels for the Ministry for the Environment. The biggest driver of change in countries with successful labels is public procurement policy requiring suppliers to demonstrate environmental performance. Over the same 13-year period that Environmental Choice has existed here, Korea, which has public procurement policy, has 36 times as many licensees using its label.
I also want the next government to communicate clearly what sustainability means for everyone. The United Kingdom government regularly reports what it is achieving in terms of people, profit and planet. It is not about environmental protectionism, it is about preserving our quality of life whilst growing our economy. The two are not mutually exclusive. We could become the first country to earn ‘first world’ sustainable living from our natural environment through small entrepreneurial companies and large international ones which choose to be based here because their employees value our quality of life. Being on the other side of the world to most markets is no longer hindrance – technologies such as the internet and global financial and trade systems do not exclude us.
So what can government do?
The Resource Management Act is probably the single piece of legislation which for New Zealanders defines sustainability – and most consider it to restrict their quality of life rather than enhancing it. The process is onerous. If government departments had to wait five years to implement legislation they would understand better the frustrations.
It is also seen to take without giving. I would advise the incoming Minister to include an appropriate compensation regime for people who see themselves as ‘victims’ of progress when their property rights are devalued without compensation.
After two decades during which demand for energy capacity has risen despite increased focus on conservation, we now need expanded capacity in both generation and transmission if we are to avoid shortages.
Everyone wants moderately priced reliable electricity but no one wants new plant or transmission lines near their home. These desires are incompatible and the current RMA legislation fails to deal adequately with this conflict between national objectives and local objections.
Government needs to get off the fence and provide the consenting authorities with statement of national energy priorities through National Policy Statement.
If we can’t provide sufficient energy for industry, we will stifle growth, the economy and jobs. Power companies themselves are between rock and hard place. They are tasked with providing the country with power.
We cannot rule out every option – hydro because of water allocations, wind because of windmills frightening the horses, coal because of potential CO2 emissions – without ensuring that in the long term we can keep our production going and the lights on.
And changes to our infrastructure take years to happen.
Auckland’s roads are congested today because we didn’t make the right decisions 10 years ago. New Zealanders have one of the highest ratios of cars per family in the world, but many of these cars would fail emissions tests elsewhere. The Business Council is developing proposal to reduce barriers for businesses wishing to buy lower emission and more fuel efficient vehicles, suggesting for example reduced Fringe Benefit Tax for introducing such vehicles into their fleets. Over time this will improve the second-hand market.
Finally, New Zealanders must believe that we can both compete globally and retain our quality of life. In Australia managers think three-percent growth is an acceptable and achievable target. In New Zealand, we think we might be lucky to sustain growth above one percent. Only when we think about where we want to be rather than where we are, will we truly achieve the economic success we are capable of whilst meeting our social and environmental aspirations.
Peter Neilson is chief executive of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development.