Matthew Hooton: David Parker, Minister for Shaking Things Up
Fears that the former global president of Socialist Youth might be some kind of swivel-eyed neo-Marxist are giving way to worries she is too conservative.
Having previously ruled out major tax reform for her entire prime ministership, Jacinda Ardern this week became a more loyal defender of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson’s monetary policy than Act leader David Seymour or National’s Andrew Bayly.
For weeks, Seymour has been suggesting the Government require the Reserve Bank to target asset price inflation, such as houses, as well as consumer price inflation. On Tuesday, Bayly wanted Grant Robertson to write to the bank telling it “to stop throwing more and more printed money at our overpriced housing market”.
Ardern was having none of it, dismissing such calls as Muldoonist. Her inner circle of Robertson, Chris Hipkins and Megan Woods is equally conservative, primarily being safe pairs of hands.
But down on the 6th floor of the Beehive, Environment Minister David Parker, even at 60, retains a youthful enthusiasm to do more than mollify the median voter.
Such ambitions always carry a risk, lest they prompt a backlash from vested interests, but they also create an opportunity for Ardern to deliver some kind of legacy beyond her response to March 15 and Covid-19.
Parker already has a substantial policy record. As Helen Clark’s Climate Change Minister, he fathered the emissions trading scheme (ETS), with the support of National’s Nick Smith. As Ardern’s first Trade Minister, he won amendments to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that were essential to secure the acquiescence of Labour’s left, restoring a bipartisan trade policy.
On the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Parker delegated most of the work to his then-associate Damien O’Connor, but retained ultimate responsibility.
His personal project was the successful ratification of the strategically important Pacer Plus deal, which will help keep the South Pacific nations in New Zealand’s and Australia’s orbit rather than falling into China’s.
Parker has some bits and bobs to take care of over the next three years.
As New Zealand’s first Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, he has the responsibility to remove NZ First’s questionable influence and better balance economic, environmental and labour-standards interests. There are no doubts that cameras will be required on fishing boats and that the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is back on the agenda.
As Associate Finance Minister, Parker is expected to retain his delegation for overseas investment policy. It was Parker who banned foreigners from buying houses and later drove the emergency Covid-19 measures to stop distressed New Zealand companies from being scavenged by foreign vulture funds. The foreign buyers ban was controversial, but who knows where house prices would be without it.
As Revenue Minister, Parker will focus on compliance but could work with the IRD’s policy division to see if any rebalancing of the tax system might fit enough within Ardern’s parameters to be put to voters in 2023.
These issues are important, but Parker’s do-or-die jobs over the next three years are to successfully repeal and replace the Resource Management Act (RMA) and to navigate through the dangerous currents of water allocation without sinkingHMNZS Ardern.
Ardern has put Parker on a tight timeframe for RMA reform, wanting significant progress by the middle of next year and the whole project wrapped up by the election. Reform will be based on the Randerson Report. As Parker outlined on Wednesday, two new acts are planned — a Natural and Built Environments Act for most consent applications and a Strategic Planning Act for issues like transport — plus a separate law on managed retreat from land threatened by climate change.
The big question is whether to seek bipartisan consensus, as Parker broadly achieved over the ETS and James Shaw over the Zero Carbon Act — and as Geoffrey Palmer did with the original RMA.
Judith Collins has a different two-act model from Randerson’s, but Parker will find a willing accomplice in Scott Simpson, co-chair of National’s BlueGreens faction, who Collins has kept in the environment portfolio.
Collins’ more rabid supporters want her to play a wrecking game, but National’s business backers expect the party to be constructive — giving Parker leverage in negotiations.
The goal is to make the system faster and cheaper without undermining environmental values. The obvious solution is to make permanent Parker’s Covid-19 fast-track system that has quickly approved Northland’s Matawaiireservoir without undue controversy. A decision on the Clutha Upper Waitaki lines project is expected soon.
Managed retreat could be more delicate. Parker will need to find a way to compensate coastal dwellers who have been around for generations, but not Aucklanders who have recently bought a low-lying beachfront holiday home.
Most difficult is water allocation. Parker’s first-term work on water quality upset farmers and was attacked by National for being too prescriptive — but Beehive strategists argue they can’t have got it completely wrong given that Labour took provincial seats off National like Rangitata, Tukituki, Wairarapa and Northland, where water issues are most sensitive.
New Zealand currently operates a communist system for water allocation, where the resource is rationed not by price but through queuing, with preference to existing users and the nomenklatura, regardless of allocative efficiency.
It is no more surprising that we experience acute regional water shortages in a highly pluvial country than that the Soviet Union experienced bread shortages despite controlling Ukraine.
There is no chance Ardern has the mettle to back a fully rational pricing system in the face of farmer opposition and Ngāi Tahu’s legal action claiming rangatiratanga over South Island water. That litigation will awaken demons of similar magnitude to the foreshore and seabed controversy, but it is impossible to imagine Ngāi Tahu doing a worse job of allocating water in its rohe than the status quo. A compromise will be needed.
Parker will need to draw on the negotiating skills he developed working for the late Howard Paterson, and as Climate Change and Trade Minister, if he wants to deliver the next generation not just cleaner water, but also the maximum economic return for its use.
Hopefully Ardern gives him the political latitude to try. She can always sack him if he fails.
– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant. These views are his own.
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