National’s increasingly hardline approach on legislation

The week in politics: ‘The Nats seemed to have become more and more obstinate,’ Peter Dunne says.
The Week in Politics

This week the Coalition government launched its initiative to bring agriculture into the emissions trading scheme – except farming will not come into the ETS if an alternative mechanism can be developed to reduce on-farm emissions.

At the same time the government’s big reform of vocational education was back before a select committee, with industry training organisations and Business New Zealand warning that the changes will not work.

Meanwhile the National Party apparently “dicked” Justice Minister Andrew Little around by saying one minute it supported new terrorism legislation and the next demanding changes to make it tougher.

So former United Future leader and cabinet minister Peter Dunne wondered whether National had changed its approach after learning from the Liberal Party’s election campaign in Australia earlier this week.

The most significant news this week was that farmers and the government, for so long at loggerheads over climate change policy, had agreed to a new initiative, He Waka Eke Noa, which translates to “Our future in our hands.” Under the arrangement the government is partnering with the sector to help develop its own emission monitoring and pricing mechanism by 2025 instead of joining the ETS next year.

Climate Change Minister and Green Party co-leader James Shaw acknowledged criticism from environmentalists that change was not going far and fast enough. But farmers were also upset that if they do not make enough progress the government will bring them into the ETS and could do so before 2025.

“The fact is that nobody gets everything that they want out of this but what it does do is after 30 years of diddling around with it we’re actually going to get on with the job,” Shaw said.

Agriculture and the ETS

Dunne thinks Shaw is right.

“Agriculture and the treatment of it has always been a problem. Successive governments have tried to figure out the best way forward and I think what’s been arrived at here, albeit a set of compromises, is a pretty elegant solution all round.”

He said there was now a challenge for National in how it responded to what was essentially a farmer-based solution.

“What does it do? Does it come into line or does it simply say, ‘not good enough or you’ve gone too far’?”

Dunne said National had been trying to have it both ways on climate change policy.

“It’s talked about the need for a consensus, about a bipartisan solution if possible but it has always resisted taking the next step. Well, I think what’s happened here is the government has said, ‘okay fine we’ll take it for you’, [and] put up a proposition that’s pretty hard to argue against. What are you going to do? And I suspect National’s going to have to quietly come around to this – otherwise its credibility’s going to be shot,” he said.

On industry training though, National, which has reservations about the government’s reform of vocational education, is more in line with what industry thinks.

Industry training organisations and Business New Zealand have all raised worries about changes in which the country’s 16 institutes of technology and polytechnics will be merged into one organisation and ITOs will be replaced by four to six workplace development councils. Legislation setting up the new structure was before Parliament’s education and workforce select committee again this week.

Industry training uncertainty

Industry training federation chief executive Josh Williams said there was real uncertainty about what influence industry would have on trades training under the new structure.

“When we look at workforce development councils, they’re not industry-owned. The minister of education decides their governance, the minister decides their composition, how many they are and which areas they cover,” Williams said.

Dunne said the problem with industry training went back a long way. The country used to have a system based in the workplace but then polytechnics became more involved in trades training.

“I take Josh Williams' point about just where the connection is going to be with the people who you actually need in the critical jobs and how they’re trained on the job.”

He said the reform was driven mainly by the financial problems faced by some polytechnics. The perception was that the polytechnic system was broken so it should be fixed. From that came the idea to fix the whole trades training system.

“I don’t think the ITOs were perfect by any means either but I think we’re in danger here of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Dunne said.

Terror response

Meanwhile, political arguments emerged this week over the Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Bill, which proposes giving the government greater powers to deal with New Zealanders returning home after having fought for or helped extremist groups overseas.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said National had “dicked” him around after agreeing to support the legislation and then demanding changes to make it tougher.

Dunne said the norm was that security legislation, wherever possible, proceeded with bipartisan support.

“That seemed to be what was being driven at right at the beginning and then either the Nats dicked Andrew Little around, or the Nats threw a hissy fit, or Andrew Little threw a hissy fit and all that broke down,” Dunne said.

“He went to the Greens who were vehemently opposed to the legislation a week ago and suddenly found he can get a solution by making a couple of comparatively minor amendments to it.”

He said the disagreement raised questions about the durability of the legislation but the bigger question was over National’s approach to politics.

“In the past few months the Nats seemed to have become more and more obstinate. You know, there was a period where they looked as though they were trying to be constructive. Now they’re being damned difficult. Is that because they’ve learned from what Scott Morrison did in Australia? Are they going through their own internal ructions? I’m just intrigued as to what’s going on here because I think it’s detrimental overall to the country,” Dunne said.

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