It is increasingly obvious governments around the world are struggling to solve the problems and issues of particular concern to the people that elect or depend on them: climate change, inflation, cost of living, health, education, crime and food supply, to list a few. Governments exist to make decisions and that involves the people having to accept the effect of these decisions, whether they like it or not.
New Zealand and other democracies hold elections every three or four years which provides the opportunity for a change of government if the electorate doesn’t like the incumbent’s policies. Inevitably governments lose elections, rather than oppositions winning them and the usual reason for losing an election is the state of the economy, how well off people feel, which is often a consequence of external factors the government can do little about. It is the opposition’s job to tell the voters how much better they can manage the economy, but realistically it is naïve to expect much improvement in the short term.
New Zealand has just emerged from two years of lockdowns and restrictions caused by the pandemic which, with the best of intentions, have damaged many parts of the economy possibly permanently, as well as affecting the lives of large sections of the population. We have escaped relatively lightly – imagine the impact of the strict lockdowns imposed by the Chinese government on whole cities or the horrendous impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Although the press has always held governments to account, media fragmentation and the growth of social media has exponentially expanded the level of noise to which governments are exposed. Every interest and lobby group now has the technological means to attack every decision they don’t approve of, while giving the impression they represent a much larger proportion of the population than they actually do. At the same time, MMP has enabled a much wider range of views to find expression in Parliament.
A feature of modern politics is the number of supposedly independent experts and panels eager to offer advice on how to address all the problems confronting the world or the country. During the Covid-19 pandemic the New Zealand government received advice from multiple epidemiologists who in conjunction with the Ministry of Health effectively dictated the government’s response for two years. A growing percentage of the voting public now appears to be tired of the restrictions imposed as a result of the experts’ advice.
Food production is another area bedevilled by experts, often with conflicting opinions, because agriculture is both a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and the world’s food requirements. The 2015 Paris Accord specifically noted the need to maintain food supply at sufficient levels to feed the global population, while at the same time reducing GHGs from dietary changes, food waste, methane emissions and fertiliser use, predominantly in first world countries.
Locally some experts would have us believe this can be achieved by changing entirely to a plant-based diet, although the New Zealand topography means there is not enough suitable land to produce what would be needed. At the same time this would destroy the economy’s largest output, reducing the country to beggar status, while the rest of the developed world continues to generate emissions.
The present government has reached a logical agreement with the agricultural sector which will allow it to move at a realistic pace towards measurement and reduction of GHG emissions without forcing the majority of farmers out of business. It may not be fast enough for Greenpeace and other climate change activist groups, but it is worth remembering politics is the art of the possible. The government has many obligations, not just to the electorate, but also to international partners which means it must constantly tread a narrow line between unpalatable and sometimes irreconcilable options.
But its most important duty is to ensure the country earns enough from taxes, investments and overseas income to cover all the costs of a functioning economy without incurring unsustainable debt levels. Meeting international obligations can only happen if the economy is performing, which means no government can afford to kill the goose laying the golden egg.
An interesting development in the EU has seen the largest political party in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, urge the European Commission to drop its much vaunted Farm to Fork strategy, an essential plank of the EU’s Green Deal which aims to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050. The Farmer’s Daughter USA blogs “this plan calls for reducing pesticide use by farmers by as much as 50 percent, and reducing fertilizer use by 20 percent. It also calls for farmers to take 10 percent of existing farmland out of production. And, last but not least, Farm to Fork’s goal is to transition 25 percent of Europe’s farmland into organic production.”
The USDA’s Economic Research Service has analysed the impact of Farm to Fork, concluding European production would fall by up to 12%, if only the EU adopted the plan world food prices would rise by 9% and if adopted globally the increase would be a staggering 89%.
Clearly the New Zealand government is wise to take a cautious approach when setting emissions reduction targets for agriculture, because aiming for more ambitious GHG goals may send the country bankrupt, while contributing to a rise in world food prices.
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