The government’s formal capitulation ( due later today) on the mining of Schedule Four conservation land is a smashing victory for the public – one that has been made possible in part by the Key government’s skittish tendency to back off from policies that significantly threaten its mainstream popularity. Something similar happened to the Clark government early in its tenure when it made tentative moves against the business sector in 2001. Likewise, the Key government strategists have now backed off from their own ‘winter of discontent’ collision, this time with the environmental movement.
What this victory highlights is the liability that Gerry Brownlee and his minions are proving to be to this government. Brownlee not only brought to the Cabinet table a proposal to violate some of New Zealand’s most prized natural resources but he did so in a fashion that virtually gifted his opponents with a simple, easily grasped, and can’t fail slogan – no mining in our national parks! How the spin geniuses in government didn’t see this defeat coming from day one, is a mystery.
In addition, Brownlee lazily never got on top of the alleged economic benefits that might, repeat might have accrued from the mining activities in the regions being proposed. As Forest and Bird Research was readily able to point out, the $194 billion figure that he and his officials originally cited for the exercise was an estimate for the entire Schedule Four category – and before any cost of extraction, any diversion of profits to foreign mining companies or any offsetting impact on our tourism industry was taken into account. In press conferences, Brownlee could never get his figures convincingly straight, or mount a compelling argument. As a public relations exercise, his was a failure of BP proportions.
At the finale, all that the government was left with was a threadbare argument that – no worries, people – it had only been a stock-taking exercise of our mineral assets all along, and was never really a proposal to carry out actual mining. Even if this unlikely distinction – hey we found El Dorado, but we decided not to mine it – was ever valid, it would mean that Brownlee (and his glove puppet Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson) had managed to land the government in a humiliating political position over what was allegedly only a stock-take, and one never really intended to be acted upon. Yeah, that makes sense.
Brownlee should be feeling a bit worried about his job. When National was last in opposition, Brownlee, Judith Collins, Kate Wilkinson and Murray McCully were not part of the A team in the National caucus that had coalesced around Bill English, Simon Power and, at the time. Katherine Rich. In government, Brownlee is still playing in the B or C team, and this effort on mining national parks will do nothing to enhance his standing in caucus, or with the Key/English/Joyce/Power inner circle. Like Trevor Mallard was in the dying days of the Clark government, Brownlee is becoming a chronic liability.
Luckily for him – and for National – the oil exploration issue is unlikely to come to a head during this first term. Because there too, the same pattern is evident in Brownlee’s modus operandi. First, an over-statement of the possible returns, second a reassurance that all this is merely exploratory so no need for concern, and third, an inability to clarify the net gains to this country. Moreover, Brownlee has shown a readiness to barge ahead with the oil exploration business plan and sign contracts with foreign bidders before the consultation, ownership and compensation claims with respect to local Maori are fully sorted out – which is still the situation with respect to both the exploration of the Raukumara drilling off East Cape, and the Reinga block up north.
Those are crises in waiting. For the opposition, Brownlee is the gift that just keeps on giving.