This year has been one of transitions, in the world economy
and energy options, in the orthodoxies by which the rules are
made and, here at home, in politics, policies and
A new decade has been dawning. To talk of a
''twenty-first-century'' this or that is behind the play. The
2010s are not the 2000s.
The 2000s were the decade of a global financial asset bubble
and its bursting. That stripped the veneer from weaknesses in
the Atlantic economies and cut into United States median
household economic and psychological security and tousled its
The United States is in transition from dominant power to
something nearer first-among-equals. That is part-driving its
interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in talks
this week in Auckland.
The United States' primary TPP interest is intellectual
property, which it patents and copyrights with an abandon
other countries cannot accept. In any case, the 2010s
internet is ripping up copyright. Kim Dotcom brought this
transition into sharp relief this year. Others will follow.
Publishers are adapting with e-books.
Actually, the TPP and the many other trade talks are an
institutional catch-up with the rapid organic change from
separate national economies to a global economy, going faster
this decade. Even the United States is under strain.
There was another United States transition this year: from
importing petroleum to a production boom at home using recent
technologies such as fracking. Parts of Europe are set to
follow. At home fracking has multiplied the potential of
Taranaki's reserves. This was the year ''peak oil'' was
A reverse transition was the one in global climate change
talks from a promising deal at Durban to a near stall at Doha
(matching the frozen world trade talks known as the Doha
Economically stressed populations have made climate action
politically less attractive this year. John Key's transition
out of the Kyoto Protocol and indefinite postponement of more
action through the emissions trading scheme is, therefore, no
That retreat mirrored another Cabinet transition: from Bill
English to Steven Joyce, that is, from getting regulatory and
fiscal settings right as the key to economic rebalancing to
making GDP-growth the No 1 objective, commanding priority
over environmental and social issues.
That underlies, for example, the reforms of local councils.
Legislation this year and next imposes a much tighter
ministerial grip on councils' spending and decisions.
It also underlies Resource Management Act changes. An
amending Bill last week and another due next year are pro-GDP
growth. Last week's Bill requires quantitative cost-benefit
assessment, including of economic benefit and opportunity
cost, a big transition from the original Act's environmental
That reflects green-sceptic Mr Joyce's ascendancy. This year
he was made lead minister of the ministerial natural
resources cluster. The focus (now legislation on the
exclusive economic zone is through and exploration and
exploitation regulations nearly finalised) is on more
agriculture, petroleum and minerals. The GDP-growth fixation
almost certainly has wide voter backing. When households have
less financial leeway, they have less leeway for social and
A recent Australian poll found even young people far more
focused on economic welfare and less environmentalist than in
the recent past.
Are Messrs Key, English, Joyce and Co a transitional Cabinet
to harder-nosed politics?Ironically, the Treasury has been in
transition the other way: widening its purview in its
long-term fiscal projections (under discussion at a
conference yesterday and today) to examine factors beyond GDP
And the next government of the other side is likely to
reverse many of the GDP-above-all changes. The
Key-English-Joyce cabinet is less a transition to a new era
than the last phase of baby-boomer domination and that
generation's policy orthodoxies.
That generational transition came into focus at Labour's
conference when the generation-X Grant Robertson/generation-Y
Jacinda Ardern leadership-in-waiting firmed its ascendancy in
the leadership standoff.
Gen-Y, in particular, thinks differently from baby-boomers
about social structure, individual freedoms and choice
(National is closer to Gen-Y than Labour on this), the place
of Maori (the Maori Party's transition this year has been to
opposition-in-all-but-formality), the internet and (despite
the Australian poll) the environment-economy relativity.
Also, Gen-X and Gen-Y in Labour this year have been searching
for replacements for the current ruling orthodoxies. But,
while there is a ferment of international questioning of the
old orthodoxies, there are not yet settled substitutes.
Labour's conference looked back more than ahead. The Greens,
too, sound more 1980s than 2010s.
So the transition between orthodoxies has a way to go. But it
has begun. Hang on tight. The 2020s are coming.
• Colin James is a leading social and political