Time for some government eco-bashing

It is one of the great disappointments, and mysteries, of our Western world that the economy and the environment seem to be forever in different corners of the ring.

Other countries have shown that the two need not be mutually exclusive, with realistic and progressive green economics. But in New Zealand, there have rarely been significant occasions when the two haven’t pitted as "either-or" options.

In any donnybrook between the economy and the environment, the latter always comes off worse.

National Party or National-led governments are not usually natural allies of the environment and its guardians. It comes as little surprise, then, that the coalition government appears to be heading down that same path, trampling whatever flora and fauna dares to get in its way in its haste to reach some vague economic paradise.

In the ongoing review of Budget 2024 there is perhaps only one aspect worth mentioning when it comes to environmental protection and, wash your mouth out, mitigating against climate change.

Yes, amidst the gloom there sparkles something brighter. Regional Development Minister Shane Jones has been swaggering excitedly about $1.2 billion to be disbursed across three years in the regional infrastructure fund. This aims to bolster community resilience by protecting lives and livelihoods.

Part of this amount, $200 million, has been ring-fenced for flood-protection schemes, and more than $100m has already been allocated. In the South, four such projects are being funded — the West Taieri contour-channel upgrade, the Aparima catchment flood-protection upgrade, the Ōreti River catchment flood scheme and the Te Anau Basin catchment flood-management project.

This is a really positive step. Small towns and settlements around the country are facing huge bills to pay for stopbanks and other flood-protection works, which their small base of ratepayers cannot afford.

There are compelling arguments that keeping their homes and businesses safe is a national responsibility, given their endeavours help feed the coffers and social capital of NZ Inc.

Photo: Getty Images
Unfortunately, in promoting the fund, Mr Jones has provided a disturbing insight into the government’s mind by talking about the ferocity of rain-bearing storms such as Cyclone Gabrielle and Cyclone Hale, and other extreme weather which New Zealand is now facing.

He does so without appearing to realise there’s a link between the weather and the climate, and that much of this flood-protection work is, to use a phrase bandied around a lot in the past week, at the bottom of a soggy cliff.

This is where there seems to be a huge gap in government thinking about matters upstream from the cliff edge. It’s all very well to pour millions into protection, but how about doing something about the climate change which is increasing the frequency and severity of such storms? Where’s the money in the Budget for climate-change initiatives?

Of all the environmental challenges facing New Zealand, climate change is the biggest and most insidious. It affects all manner of other issues. Yet we have a government which is still in thrall to the motor car and brainwashed to believe roads are the be-all and end-all. Billions of dollars have been set aside for pothole and highway repairs around the motu.

In the meantime, a number of climate programmes were scrapped or tinkered with in the Budget, including funding cuts for the Climate Change Commission and delaying putting a price on methane and nitrous oxide, which account for nearly half all our greenhouse-gas emissions.

Crown research institute Niwa also appears to have got into the swing of the cuts, despite not being directly asked to save money, by planning to axe its climate-modelling team.

More widely, the Ministry for the Environment this week proposed gutting its workforce by about a third, with 300 jobs on the line and cuts to important environmental workstreams. The Department of Conservation has already announced it will prune 130 jobs, not all of them back-office roles.

It’s probably asking too much of this government, but it needs to stop and consider the dire consequences of its negative environmental actions, whose repercussions could hit much sooner than it might think.

What is it about New Zealand that is unique? Our economy, or our environment?

It’s not just Freddie the frog who’s worried.