Nick Smith: New mining czar?

OPENING SALVO: Former minister Nick Smith has launched his play for top environmental portfolios in John Key's forthcoming cabinet reshuffle.


Former minister Nick Smith has launched his play for top environmental portfolios in John Key’s forthcoming cabinet reshuffle.

Speaker Lockwood Smith will become High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in the New Year.

Local government and primary industries minister David Carter will replace him, opening up a seat around the cabinet table, those important portfolios, and perhaps a wider juggling of roles.

Nick Smith is the obvious contender for promotion. His foolishness in writing a letter on ministerial letterhead in support of his friend Bronwyn Pullar warranted his resignation and humiliation but was hardly a capital offence. 

Much worse offenders have received parole and even Mr Key is not yet powerful enough to avoid appeasing the Bill English faction by reappointing its most loyal member.

In ancipation, Dr Smith this week took to the New Zealand Herald to write a column in favour of fracking.

Those not obessesed with the minutiae of political maneuvering might interpret a pro-fracking column as Dr Smith signalling a desire to move on from his beloved environment and climate change portfolios, but they would be quite wrong.

Dr Smith began his ministerial career in the 1990s as conservation minister and is the spiritual guide of National’s BlueGreen movement.

The green portfolios are his passion, and Greenpeace says it sees eye to eye with him on the issues.

His problem is that his climate change and emissions trading zeolotry put him offside with the business community and National Party. 

By coming out in favour of something as environmentally contentious as fracking, Dr Smith would have been hoping to restore his reputation in those circles, allowing Mr Key to reappoint him to the jobs he loves.

Mr Key should not be tempted. Dr Smith’s reappointment to the environment and climate change portfolios would be a two-fingered salute by Mr Key to the business community. Other roles must be found for someone with extraordinary energy and talent. Several come to mind.

Putting stick about
Dr Smith did a splendid job as local government minister, sacking Environment Canterbury, putting the stick about in Kaipara and generally upsetting the local government wallies who are such a major barrier to economic growth in New Zealand.

As Rodney Hide’s Auckland Council and the Canterbury experience show, extraordinary things can be achieved by streamlining local government processes.

Whatever other portfolio he gets, Dr Smith should be allowed to finish the job he started in local government, and achieve horizontal but more importantly vertical integration of these burdensome structures.

 Mr Key should also seriously consider Dr Smith for primary industries and energy and minerals.

The 17th ranked minister Nathan Guy, now responsible for immigration and racing, is favoured for the former but to put such a junior minister in charge of the nation’s most important industry would send the wrong signal to farmers and the wider agri-business sector.

In contrast, Dr Smith has the seniority, energy and intellectual grunt for the job.

Moreover, those at senior levels of both the dairy industry and farmer politics know that a bit of environmental stick is needed, not because the dairy industry is particularly dirty now but because it needs to at least double its volumes in the next few years without increasing its environmental impact by anywhere near as much. 

Higher standards and tougher rules are inevitable and it wouldn’t hurt for Dr Smith to apply the same environmental zealotry that made him such a pest in climate change to push that process along.

Even better would be for Dr Smith to become to oil and mining czar. New Zealand’s oil and mineral reserves are estimated to be in the vicinity of $1 trillion but the government has bungled efforts to expand the sector. 

Gerry Brownlee proved that, whatever his other talents, careful diplomacy with the environmental movement was not among them, while Hekia Parata and Phil Heatley have been safe pairs of hands. 

Alone in the National caucus, Dr Smith has the green credentials, the personal energy and intellect, and bureaucratic and political talents to dramatically grow the oil and mining industries, in a way which does not risk National’s third term.

Mr Key should call his bluff over his fracking column and instruct him to make it happen.  It would be a way of redeeming himself from the harm he caused with his ETS.

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