Chris Hipkins’ policy purge has infuriated Green MPs (Image: Jason Stretch)
Chris Hipkins’ policy purge has infuriated Green MPs (Image: Jason Stretch)

PoliticsMarch 14, 2023

‘An absolute slap in the face’: Green MPs on Chris Hipkins’ latest policy purge

Chris Hipkins’ policy purge has infuriated Green MPs (Image: Jason Stretch)
Chris Hipkins’ policy purge has infuriated Green MPs (Image: Jason Stretch)

The second tranche of ‘reprioritisation’ has seen numerous measures promoted by the Green Party come a cropper. Toby Manhire reports from parliament on the response.

On May 16, 2022, James Shaw, the climate change minister, unveiled a $2.9 billion emissions reduction plan. Jacinda Ardern, the then prime minister, couldn’t stand with him, having tested positive for Covid-19, but from isolation she heralded a “landmark day in our transition to a low-emissions future”, saying: “We cannot leave the issue of climate change until it’s too late to fix.”

The headline announcement that day was a “car upgrade scheme” – aka “cash for clunkers” – to incentivise lower- and middle-income New Zealanders to ditch petrol-guzzling vehicles for clean cars, at a cost of $568 million.

Yesterday, the policy was sent to a scrapyard of its own. “Trials of the scheme have proven difficult,” said Ardern’s successor as prime minister, Chris Hipkins, at his post-cabinet press conference. “And it is not clear that this is the most cost-effective way to increase the uptake of low-emissions vehicles. The $568 million allocated to the scheme will now be freed up to invest in cost-of-living measures.”

It was one of a host of policies binned or bumped into the long grass in today’s second tranche of policy “reprioritisations” – a process Ardern signalled before Christmas. If it is, as some have branded it, a bonfire, then the flames have a distinctly green tinge.

As well as the cash-for-clunkers programme, the social leasing car scheme that had been announced on the same day is gone, as is the container refund scheme. Auckland light rail survives, but will be “staged” – read, slowed down even further.

The speed reduction programme will be narrowed “to focus on the most dangerous 1% of state highways”. Also gone: potential legislation to reduce the voting age to 16 (though there will be a move to change the age of suffrage for local elections) and the second part of alcohol law reform, both championed by the Greens. 

That all comes on top of the ditching of the biofuel mandate in tranche no 1, as well as the extension of the cut in fuel excise, making petrol more affordable. 

Asked how it all went down with the Greens, with whom the majority Labour Party has signed a cooperation agreement, Hipkins said to “watch this space” for climate-focused announcements, and that he had briefed co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson yesterday morning. “We had a really positive conversation, I’m not going to get into a blow-by-blow account of that,” he said. “They can share their own reactions to the announcement that I have made today and I am sure that they will.”

‘I’ve been pissed off for a while now’

We asked Shaw directly. Would he characterise that conversation as “really positive”? “Yes,” he said after a pause. “In the sense that we have a constructive and open relationship.” But, he said, “obviously I was less than delighted about some of the reprioritisations”.

Take each element on its own, and “you can say, OK, that one initiative doesn’t make a big difference”, he said. “But the collection does have quite a big impact on our emissions.” To meet the emissions budget dictated by the emissions reduction plan, “we do need to make the calls now,” he said. “Because New Zealand’s history, for the last 30 years, has been to say, we face pressing issues and kick the climate can down the road. It’s disappointing.”

James Shaw (Image: Getty Images)

Disappointment is one way of putting it. Given the simmering rage that he evidenced in a parliamentary speech that rippled around the world last month after Cyclone Gabrielle, was he not – how to put it – pissed off? “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been pissed off for a while now. It’s just exasperating and disappointing that we keep making short-term decisions at the expense of the future. It drives me nuts.”

He added: “Where I have hope is the prime minister does understand the challenge – he does understand the maths of addressing emissions. We have to work out how to close the gap, to make up for those policies that are now off the table or kicked into the future.” Were New Zealand to slip further on emissions, it would only mean offsetting that abroad. “Every decision we make that fails to reduce emissions adds to the bill we have to pay to the rest of the world to get them to reduce theirs.”

Shaw’s own challenge, he said, was “to make the case to voters, and to get around the cabinet table”.

His hopes on that front were boosted by last night’s poll by Kantar for 1News, which put the Greens up four points to 11%. That followed a poll by Curia for the Taxpayers’ Union just a few days ago which painted a very different picture, putting the Green Party at just 5.7%.

‘An absolute slap in the face’

When it was put to Hipkins at his press conference yesterday that he had “very publicly given [the Greens] a middle finger”, he responded, “I completely reject the assertion.” But for Chlöe Swarbrick, the decision to defer beyond the election action on the second phase of alcohol reform, covering sponsorship, advertising and pricing, was an “absolute slap in the face”, she told The Spinoff. Across more than a decade, review after review had made clear the scale of alcohol-related harm and the difference that reform in those areas could make, she said. A “huge community rallying effort” involving councils and community groups around the country had underscored the case. All those involved would be “devastated” by a decision that extended the “Sisyphean” challenge, she said.

The Green caucus would be discussing their response today but “there really is quite an air of disappointment” that the government was unwilling to “walk and chew gum” on cost of living and other challenges. “We work in good faith, as constructively as possible, and it’s super gutting that this is where the priority lies.”

Chlöe Swarbrick. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Swarbrick said she would begin today a mission to persuade Labour backbenchers to instead get behind her alcohol supply and sale member’s bill, which includes many of the measures now deferred by Hipkins’ government. 

A scheme that would have seen refunds paid for the return of beverage containers was another that was canned, at least in the short term, yesterday. Though evidence showed it helped to reduce waste, said Hipkins, “it’s estimated it will add a small cost to the average household and we don’t want to be imposing additional costs on families at this time”.

Green MP Eugenie Sage said she was “extremely disappointed” by a “rubbish decision”. She wrote on Facebook:  “[I’m] gutted for all the work that Ministry for the Environment staff and stakeholders have done since I announced in 2019 that government was establishing a group to design and develop the scheme … Deferring the container return scheme it is just kicking the can down the road on ending plastic pollution.”

Another question in last night’s Kantar/1News poll asked respondents to pick the issue most likely to influence their vote in the election. Climate change finished high on the list – second at 12%. There was a gap from first, however, with 48% picking cost of living. 

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