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Peter Wilson: Narrow Majority For An Important Bill

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

On Tuesday this week, if the Government gets what it wants, the bill that sets up a modified emissions trading scheme (ETS) will be back in Parliament under urgency.

What it wants, and may in part have already achieved, is a deal with the Maori Party that will ensure the legislation passes its remaining stages.

That would give it 63 votes in the 122-member House, or 64 if United Future's Peter Dunne supports it as well.

Attempts to achieve broad support, meaning the Labour Party, were abandoned weeks ago. The Government is going to put it through with the most slender of majorities against strong opposition from Labour, the Greens and ACT.

It doesn't auger well for the long-term future of such important legislation and debates on it are going to be intense and divisive.

And it isn't just the ETS regime itself which is causing problems. During the last two weeks another ugly issue has arisen.

Preferential treatment for five iwi, negotiated in secret, isn't going down well with Labour or ACT.

ACT's John Boscawen says it is race-based deal-making which is, in his party's view, fundamentally wrong. In Parliament last week he asked questions and sought disclosure of the details.

Labour is taking a softer stance, although there are signs it is taking off the velvet gloves it has worn for so long when dealing with such issues.

Documents obtained by NZPA on Friday disclosed the main issues the Iwi Leaders Group is seeking through the Maori Party.

They include preferential treatment for being allowed to grow trees on Crown-owned land, preferential status as joint venture partners for any state-owned forestry projects and a commitment to a fund to promote tree planting.

Climate Change Minister Nick Smith is defending his position, using the strong point that as the Department of Conservation already enters into agreements with foreign-owned interests, he sees no reason why it shouldn't work with iwi along the same lines.

Labour's Charles Chauvel, the party's climate change spokesman, says a deal with Ngai Tahu has already been made and "iwi corporate interests" have been added to the mix.

"Ngai Tahu says the new arrangements -- including rights to plant on Crown land -- will come at a cost to taxpayers of $50 million a year," Chauvel says.

"This sounds like a very conservative estimate. But even if it is right, that adds another $2 billion to the cost of National's ETS amendment by 2050."

This arrangement, says Chauvel, has become "a monument to secret deal-making at taxpayers' expense".

Smith denied at the weekend that the Ngai Tahu deal had been finalised, although he was confident overall agreement with the Maori Party wasn't far off.

Ngai Tahu is important because there is a legal issue over whether the ETS would reduce the value of its Treaty of Waitangi settlement.

The iwi says the impact of the ETS should have been disclosed during settlement negotiations, and it wasn't consulted about the scheme when it was being prepared.

What the outcome would be if Ngai Tahu tests this in court is hotly disputed.

Labour says it has a legal opinion that Ngai Tahu doesn't have a case, the Government argues the opposite and says it has a strong case.

Legal argument, Prime Minister John Key told Parliament last week, could potentially cost taxpayers up to $130 million.

There will be a lot more said about all these issues as the bill goes through its second reading, committee and third reading stages.

It will be a tedious process. Labour is going to put up hundreds of amendments and all of them will have to be debated.

The Government also has to make changes to the bill but the select committee which dealt with it couldn't reach agreement on any of them.

That means the minister is going to have to do it the hard way and put them through the House during the bill's committee stage, delaying its passage even further.

But Smith says he has a good reason for wanting the legislation enacted.

The previous government passed its own ETS just before the election, against strident protests, and some of its provisions are due to take effect on January 1.

"Power prices would increase on that date by 10 percent, and next year we would be putting $400 million of costs onto industry," he told Federated Farmers' power brokers last week.

The ETS is designed to eventually bring all sectors of the economy under a regime which would limit greenhouse gas emissions through a carbon trading scheme.

The Government's watered down version is much easier on big polluters and gives them more time to come into line.

Agriculture has been the most difficult and farmers don't want to come under the ETS at all, a position Smith counters by saying offshore consumers won't be impressed if New Zealanders are seen to be "laggards" on climate change policy.

The Government's version of the ETS would cost the average farmer an estimated $3000 a year in 2030. That is about one tenth of the burden they would have carried under Labour's scheme but they are still unhappy about it.

However, they seem to have calmed down after Key advised them to be "much more relaxed" about the ETS.

"While we're not very happy, we are going to live with it," said Federated Farmers president Don Nicolson.

"We will see what you finally nail down. And good luck."

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