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Prime Minister John Key says he misses Nick Smith’s experience and know-how on environmental issues.
But for NBR political columnist Matthew Hooton, it is not so much a case of capability as electoral maths.
“John Key will be worried about the effect of Dr Smith’s absence on so-called blue/green voters in Auckland Central, Wadestown, Nelson and Christchurch,” Mr Hooton says.
“Mr Key, Steven Joyce and their pollster David Farrar argue that many of these voters backed National for the first time in 2008 and then again in 2011, because they liked Dr Smith’s world leadership role in implementing the world’s first and only all-gases, all-sectors emissions trading scheme.
"Add to that Dr Smith’s close friendship with finance minister Bill English and you can see the internal pressure building for Dr Smith’s return.”
You won’t like it – but not enough for National to lose your vote
Mr Hooton says Dr Smith’s return to the environment and climate change portfolios would upset many in the business community.
But he said Mr Key and Mr Joyce assume they will vote for National anyway so their views would not be a factor in deciding Dr Smith’s future.
Softening up the public
Many in the business community sighed with relief when Emissions Trading Scheme advocate Dr Smith was forced to resigned his portfolios – including Environment and Climate Change – as the ACC scandal unfolded
Trade Minister Tim Groser – seen as much more skeptical on the ETS than Dr Smith – took over Climate Change. Amy Adams took on Environment.
But now it looks like the path is being laid for Dr Smith’s return to his cherished portfolios.
"He's very capable so we miss him," the Prime Minister told media last week.
"He's by far our most experienced person when it comes to the environment."
Mr Key would not rule out a return to cabinet for Dr Smith if he was exonerated by inquiries into the Bronwyn Pullar scandal (now a clear possibility given the ACC’s reversal of fortune).
Mr Hooton says there was no reason for Mr Key to go out of his way to praise Dr Smith, unless he was softening up the public for his return.
Dr Smith fuelled rumours when he quoted Winston Churchill at a Federated Farmers water forum, after being asked whether he would be back in Cabinet.
"Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times,'' he said.
Dr Smith’s fan club
Greenpeace would welcome Dr Smith’s return.
Spokesman Nathan Argent told NBR ONLINE, “It’s fair to say Nick Smith was a very capable minister. He was the one person [in cabinet] who had a handle on environmental issues.”
Dr Smith understood the complex ETS issue very well.
“We've always seen eye to eye with him. He’s the one person we've enjoyed one to one contact with; he's very capable,” Mr Argent said.
However, there were limits to Mr Argent’s expectations for a Nick Smith return.
“In terms of where the government's going, we wouldn't really expect any change in it prioritising economic growth over environmental protection,” he said.
Forest & Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said Dr Smith “is very good at the environment stuff. He knows the topic backwards. He brought a lot of experience and insight”.
Mr Hackwell wouldn’t be drawn on whether Dr Smith should return to the Environment and Climate Change portfolios.
But he did say that now Mr Key was sending signals about Dr Smith’s possible return, he should make a decision quickly.
There was a danger that Ms Adams could become an unmotivated, caretaker minister, Mr Hackwell said – something he saw as damaging a complex Resource Management Act review and the complex and contentious Exclusive Economic Zone legislation were before parliament.
That scenario would suit Federated Farmers just fine, however.
President Bruce Wills told NBR ONLINE it would be “ludicrous and damaging to our economy if we became the first country in the world to tax animals”.
Fed Famers wants the government to maintain its go-slow approach to emissions trading (as things stand, farming is out of the ETS until at least 2018).
Mr Wills did not want to comment on the merits of Dr Smith vs Ms Adams and Mr Groser in the Environment and Climate Change portfolios.
Whichever minister filled them he confident that a majority in cabinet shared Fed Farmers’ concerns over the ETS.
Punters expect Dr Smith's return
As ever, Mr Hooton has an angle on events.
His iPredict political marketplace is taking bets on the likelihood of Dr Smith's return to Cabinet by January.
As of this afternoon, the backbencher was given odds above 60% of being reinstated to his Environment and Climate Change portfolios, but only a 47% change of being reinstated to Local Government.