Welcoming the storm of outrage

Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee knew he’d provoke a storm of outrage with his plans to open up conservation land for mining companies.

His announcement came out of the blue at a speech he gave to the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in Queenstown last week where he said he wanted to unlock billions of dollars in mineral assets held in our national parks and other land under Department of Conservation control.

He had his sound bites ready by way of defence. The government didn’t intend to dig up our national parks he said and that what was proposed was just a stocktake of what minerals were where. Conservation Minister Tim Groser was more honest when he chimed in saying “If you can extract wealth from that [conservation land], that’s what we should do.”

This minister, who is charged with protecting our natural heritage, then expressed surprise at the reaction of environmental groups. Opposition to the plan was “emotional hysteria” and people should “just calm down”. He said that when words like “rape” and “pillage” are used people should just take a deep breath. Like hell.

These ministers are softening us up to believe the mining of minerals in our conservation estate is a justifiable way to increase economic growth and bring economic benefits to the country.

I’m pleased at the strong reaction. The conservation movement has come a long way since government attempts to raise the level of Lake Manapouri back in the 1970s created the first nationwide environmental fightback. Middle-aged and older New Zealanders will remember the line from the protest song “Dam the dam cried the fantail”. It was the beginning of a community struggle to protect the land we hold in trust for future generations.

At the heart of this government policy is the false belief that economic growth is the path to prosperity and that if we let the likes of mining companies pillage and plunder the country (no apology for the words Mr Groser) we will all be better off.

For a country like New Zealand economic growth is no longer the path to prosperity. Compelling research from the book “The Spirit Level” shows that once a country’s average income rises to around $25,000 the benefits of growth level off such that there is no further improvement in indicators such as “happiness” or improving life expectancy. Underdeveloped countries have a way to go but for countries like New Zealand we can no longer expect improving income levels to improve our lives in any meaningful way.

The problem for countries such as ours is the gross inequality in incomes. Last week Telecom CEO Paul Reynolds made the headlines with his $5 million income from salary and bonuses while Rob Fyfe of Air New Zealand gets a similar multi-million dollar package. Meanwhile we have families whose income is based on 60 hours plus per week but who struggle to meet basic living expenses.

New Zealand needs to shift focus to more evenly distribute wealth as the only way to improve the quality of life for everyone and dramatically reduce our growing social problems. If New Zealand were to reduce its income inequality to the levels of countries such as Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland we could expect child poverty to disappear and the serious social problems which bedevil the country (such as drug and alcohol abuse, education underachievement, obesity, teenage pregnancy etc) to be dramatically reduced.

This should be the challenge for Gerry Brownlee and Tim Groser but they want us to believe economic growth is the only way to improve our lives. They are wrong. Improving the quality of life for everyone relies on sharing the cake more fairly by changing the way we value the work people do.

We should have learnt this many times over by now. Most recently we had eight years of strong economic growth under Labour but still finished with close to 200,000 children still living below the poverty line.

It’s also worth pointing to the huge challenge of global warming from rampant exploitation of the world’s resources. Soothing the way for mining in our national parks is part of the same brain-dead thinking of politicians in thrall to the corporate sector and addicted to growth.

For our economic, environmental and social wellbeing proposals such as this must be fought. It won’t be persuasion which changes Gerry Brownlee and Tim Groser. It will be people organising together to stop them.

Doing the rounds on the internet is the suggestion Gerry Brownlee be emailed with the words “Just you dare” in the subject line. I’ve sent one off.