Why GE grass will be the next divisive issue for the coalition Government

by Jane Clifton / 20 September, 2018
Green Party co-leader James Shaw and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Green Party co-leader James Shaw and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

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As the Government gropes all over in reports and reviews for answers, it looks like GE grass may not be one.

Infectiously clever designer and entrepreneur Ian Taylor’s work motto is “Bugger the boxing, just pour the concrete”. This would never do for running the country. Rather, “measure twice, cut once” is the admirable sentiment behind the Government’s myriad policy inquiries, reports and taskforces. They’re the boxing. But the concrete-mixing process is becoming dangerously protracted.

Whatever happened to Jacinda Ardern’s battle-cry Let’s Do This? Or, as her Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is wont to say, “Too much hui and not enough do-ey.”

Reports and reviews are essential. Public policy requires a factual and precautionary basis, and those affected need time to have a say.

But on the scale the Government is doing consultation – estimates range from 70 to 170 pre-policy report-ish processes under way – it’s going to face a massed roosting of returning chickens – achieving peak cacophony and spilt yoke at election time.

An absolute cracker this week was the last formal advisory from the Prime Minister’s departing chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman. Invited by Ardern to advise her on climate-change remediation, he’s highlighted New Zealanders’ world-leading progress in inventing grasses for livestock that drastically lower methane emissions. The resoundingly silent response to this – surely the climate-change holy grail for this country – is because the grass is genetically modified. It’s as though we have found the Holy Grail, but it turns out to be embossed with a lewd cartoon and very rude words.

Non-GE grass is greener

There’s been not even a yeah/nah from the main political firmament. We’ll have to talk about this naughty/brilliant grass some time – and thank heavens we’ve got something to talk about that might actually work. But with so many political brushfires – ministers in strife, public contradictions among coalition partners, media fixation on whether Ardern is too weak or Peters too strong – rarking up the Greens on genetic modification right now is simply Not Convenient. And never will be. Expect a further discussion document to devise a framework for not deciding on this in the interim.

Or, how about Justice Minister Andrew Little’s three-day justice conference, in which the learned and high-minded gathered expensively to agree with the downtrodden and the socially deprived that locking up serious criminal offenders isn’t the answer? This is part of a long series of reportage and working-paperiness, and very important it is, too. But what if voters get the idea, round about election time, that the proposed solution is to let serious criminal offenders out of jail and to be nicer to them? Silly as this sounds, if the Government is going to keep raising important questions, but putting off answering them indefinitely, they will simply be answered in the most lurid terms possible by the Government’s foes.

Several recent “reportlets”, shall we say, show further the folly of deferral when the way forward – or at least the tough choices, the requisite boxing – are already clear. In petrol pricing, it’s already apparent from officials’ price-monitoring reports to the Government that some fuel companies are spreading the price impact of the Auckland regional fuel impost to other parts of the country. The Government, which has the whole petrol retailing/pricing framework “under review”, was warned this could happen. It also already knew, before going into indefinite review mode, what the root problem is: insufficient competition in the petrol market will always enable price padding.

It also already knew the options: either live with it like the previous few Governments, impose disclosure requirements to try to shame the companies out of price-loading, or regulate to limit their margins. What’s more task-forcery going to achieve?

Exhibit two: this week’s discussion document on electricity pricing, which has “revealed” what we already knew – that people who shop around get slightly better deals, and that some retailers are subsidising business customers at householders’ expense. Neither of these issues is at or even near to the heart of why our power seems so dear. It could even be that power is priced about right, but households simply don’t earn enough to pay for it comfortably.

The power and the glory

The Government already knows our electricity system is a perverse patchwork of historical fixes and compromises; that restructuring or re-regulating would be a nightmare; and that the whole sector faces technological upheaval that will force structural changes anyway. Ideally, it should be reformed root-and-branch, but the resultant political whirlpool and inevitable legal challenges make the idea a very unpalatable option.

Yet the more the Government “invites stakeholders to join the conversation” about its reform programme, the more voters are reminded that, as with petrol pricing, absolutely nothing is being done about it in the meantime. And it could be: regulate, or subsidise. Or just cut the prattle and live with the status quo.

Third trip up the gum tree is the tax review. Everyone knows the deal: the Government promised not to make any substantial tax changes until it can put them to the public vote next election. This sounds noble, but it’s also political roulette. The risk is having to go to the next election promising tax increases, or a snakes-and-ladders mix of increases and decreases that confuse and annoy even the voters who might benefit.

Now, smoke signals from within the review indicate that, after all, the much-gargoyled issue of capital gains taxes may, upon reflection, be too brute a political matter for the review team to advise on – at least not in its first round of recommendations.

On behalf of much-harangued voters: shoot me now! Capital gains tax has been the heffalump in the tax-policy room for so long it’s more of a woolly mammoth. The pros and cons haven’t changed since Labour ruled it out this term, and won’t have changed by the time the next 60 tax reviews and their grateful political commissioners tactfully defer it yet again. Politicians need either to grasp this over-mythologised third rail and Do This, or stop talking about it and let everyone put energy into things that might get done.

In short, we need to hear more about the This of Let’s Do This or at least have more frankness about the Not That.

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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