June 22, 2005

Rethinking Bad Ideas In New Zealand
ACT Challenging Kyoto, Ship Ban

Recent developments in New Zealand are starting to move public and parliamentary opinion on a couple big issues. The first is the Kyoto Protocol. The only party to consistently oppose Kyoto (as attested by the Labor PM Helen Clark) is ACT NewZealand, but others have flirted with it. The protocol was signed in 1997 by the National government and ratified by Labor a few years ago. One major reason that National backed it so strongly, aside from the fact that they're relatively moderate, old-style, big-government conservatives, is that New Zealand stood to gain from Kyoto's carbon credit scheme.

The carbon credit scheme is supposed to encourage countries to plant forests and so forth that act as 'carbon sinks,' natural and man-made objects that subtract carbon dioxide from the air instead of add to it. The scientific problem is that nobody knows just how to value carbon sinks, and of course that extra carbon dioxide might actually make MORE plants grow since they breathe it. Additionally, even if all carbon dioxide were removed from the atmosphere - the vast majority of which comes from nature and not industry - the planet would not be significantly cooled. Methane lasts far longer and does much more to keep the planet warm than carbon dioxide, but industrial methane is already largely blocked by clean air laws, so the Kyoto protocol focuses on carbons because it hobbles industry.

The major motivating factor behind carbon credits is that less developed countries, with fewer industries and more forests, swamps, peat moss or other natural carbon sinks, would be able to sell credits to rich, developed countries. This means two things - poor countries get money from rich ones, and undeveloped wilderness starts to become profitable compared to actual productive industrial or agricultural uses.

New Zealand was expected in 1997 to fall on the credit-seller side. This meant that if they didn't ratify they'd "be setting fire to a rather large cheque (sic)," as the PM at the time said. Of course, now they're looking at a credit deficit - meaning that check's gone and been replaced with a debt. Since they went from getting a check to sending a check, people in new Zealand are starting to re-tink this Kyoto thing. After all, Australia (under Howard) signed but has not ratified the Kyoto accord. New Zealand would be the only country in the southern hemispohere with Kyoto obligations.

ACT has been pushing the issue and is trying to get National to back them. National, the main opposition on the right to Labor's government of the left, is stalling and trying to figure out what to do. It has some members that are rather more inclined to government action and others that take a line closer to the libertarian ACT. Here's hoping New Zealand doesn't hobble itself for the sake of a treaty that wouldn't solve a problem that hasn't been proven to be a threat.

The other issue is the ship ban. In 1985 the Labor government, which included as ministers the free marketeers that would later defect to start ACT, banned nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered vessels from Kiwi ports. Since the US refused to divulge which vessels had nuclear material onboard, the ban effectively kept out almost the entire US fleet. Though safety is usually cited as the main concern, it was also in opposition to nuclear testing in the Pacific (especially by France) and the main reason was the PM's opposition to Reagan's confrontational stance toward the Soviets. The ban caused an uproar with the US and France, but the National government elected in 1990 didn't overturn it; the current National leadership is committed to not overturning it without public approval like a referendum.

The ship ban is a big problem for the Kiwis for two reasons.

One, the ANZUS treaty from 1951 was signed between Australia, New Zealand and the US (hence A-NZ-US) in order to secure those two Pacific countries from future aggression from Japan. When the Kiwis blocked all the best US ships from their ports, the US suspended the alliance with New Zealand. The alliance is now two bilateral agreements, one is Australia-US, the other is Australia-New Zealand. Although ANZUS has no dedicated forces like NATO, it does conduct joint missions, training and of course shared intelligence. Australia is also an important satellite relay point for the US. New Zealand is losing out on the technology, intelligence and tactics that could be gained from the alliance, as well as the diplomatic benefits.

Two, and more concretely, the US refuses to consider a free trade agreement with New Zealand until it lifts the ship ban. New Zealand is losing out on gobs of money that would come from trade with the US if only they would agree to re-establish normal allied relations with us. In the face of that, it'd better be a pretty strong reasoning for the ship ban, right?

Well, no. Actually, research shows Auckland Hospital puts out more radiation in a day than the entire US fleet puts out in a year. Not exactly a big hazard. A poll conducted using that research got a majority of the public to support lifting the ship ban against the US. The people who commissioned the poll offered the results to Nationals, who declined, and then turned to an MP for ACT, who has submitted a private members bill that he hopes will lead a referendum lifting the ban. This would free the way for the US-NZ free trade agreement and for a resumption of the ANZUS alliance.

Hopefully these two bad ideas will be removed from their entrenched positions. They don't have good scientific groundings and they're putting needless limits on the Kiwi economy.

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