Is democracy heading for a change of climate?

Colin James.
Colin James.
This is "democracy week", Victoria University has declared. So how are we doing, asks Colin James?

According to young people, not well in parliamentary politics, so it seems. At June 30 only 64% of estimated eligible 18- to 24-year-olds had bothered to enrol to vote, the Electoral Commission says.

For 25- to 29-year-olds the figure was 73%. Even for 30- to 34-year-olds it was 83%. Those numbers will rise by September 23 but to nowhere near 100%. Then how many of those who do enrol will vote? In 2014 only 63% of enrolled 18- to 24-year-olds voted. For the next two age groups the figures were 62% and 67%.

Well, first, there are other ways of doing politics. Hence the likes of Generation Zero and Just Speak.

Second, there are no alluring leaders such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau (now wearing off a bit) and France’s Emmanuel Macron. The nearest in the four main parties are Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw but Ms Ardern is No 2 in Labour and Mr Shaw is No 2 to Labour.

Third, so far in the four main parties there is no leading break-the-1980s-mould outsider like the United States’ Bernie Sanders or Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn — though two recent polls suggest Metiria Turei may have hit a small nerve by confessing youthful welfare fraud for her baby.

Fourth, social tensions here are not as sharp or deep as in those old countries. Visible tensions such as teenage crime, killer-drug-taking and homelessness are not (yet) gnawing at democracy’s vitals.

Fifth, Labour’s, National’s and New Zealand First’s leaders are a generation or two apart from younger voters who must live through rapidly changing and uncertain social, economic, global and environmental conditions.

Andrew Little and Labour have trended down this year. On Sunday,  Mr Little said he had offered his neck to rattled colleagues as polls raised the spectre of a Little challenge to Bill English’s 2002 21%. 

The non-voting young face high student debt, super-high hurdles to home-owning, fragmented and unstable "work" and longer-term uncertainties from climate change, antibiotic-resistant disease, gene editing for good and ill and much else. 

Act’s David Seymour, at 34, is closer in age to those who have this angst than most MPs. He talks in speeches and in a coming book of a need to address longer-term issues such as superannuation (raise the qualifying age), houses (reduce planning complications) and ethnic inequality in educational achievement. But he is now outpolled by Gareth Morgan, who is an outsider but not young.

The public at a meeting of his Opportunities party I dropped into were predominantly of or approaching middle age.

Still,  Mr Morgan does propose real change: a tax on wealth (of which the young think elite oldsters have scoffed the lot) and real climate action.

Contrast Paula Bennett’s soft pointers last week on the greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme (ETS). They do not transgress the English-Joyce rule of not denting GDP. Free allocation of emissions units to big emitters will remain and so will the $25-a-unit price cap.

The ETS is cap-and-trade without the cap, as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright noted last Thursday when calling for a non-party climate commission. 

Mrs Bennett said there would be limits — unspecified —  to buying emission reductions from abroad, which firms do to avoid cutting emissions here.

Officials have yet to bring to fruition talks with other countries how units might be bought and sold internationally and how that might fit (or not) the rules being developed to implement the 2015 Paris accord governing the 2020-30 decade.

And  Mrs Bennett said emissions units will be auctioned to manage the total so we do at some point start to edge towards our 2030 reduction target. But when and what are left vague. There is no "carbon budget", specifying a timeline of actions to meet the target.

Business and farmers could comfortably go along.

The risk in  Mrs Bennett’s tentativeness is that at some point countries taking real action might get annoyed. For example, Simon Bridges congratulated himself last week on the number of electric vehicles reaching 4027.

That is out of $505million worth of cars Statistics New Zealand says were imported in June alone. The Transport Agency said of 109,363 imported cars registered in the five months to May only 890 were electric, including hybrids. The Motor Industry Association recorded only 186 full-electric new cars imported in the six months to June.

Contrast Britain’s and France’s decisions to ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 and Volvo’s commitment to no new petrol/diesel models from 2019.

Then note that 39 mayors and regional leaders here, including of the five biggest cities, said last week they want "ambitious" action from the government. Councils face big adaptation costs.

Ambition? No boat rocking, please, before the election. Do just enough to appear to be doing something.

Antsy young might want more — and that goes not just for climate change action but for a change of climate in our democracy.

- Colin James is a leading social and political commentator.


What Labour needs is a male leader that's got guts. Not some Clark relived.