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31 January 2009

Big challenges for new minister


Few urbanites will have heard of the 10th-ranked  minister in the first John Key cabinet. But by the end of this government's  first term, David Carter should have a much higher public profile. If he doesn't, he won't have done his job.

As minister of agriculture, forestry and biosecurity he's waist-deep in the policy maelstrom where land use and the environment intersect. Think climate change, dying lakes and polluted rivers.

Putting a price on carbon is the best tool we have for addressing climate change. It scares the living daylights out of some industries and is a fantastic opportunity for others. Because it will push up electricity and fuel prices, consumers don't want to know about it.

In the case of water, the days of an unlimited clean supply are long over in many areas. Better ways need to be found to allocate and protect what's left. But as with greenhouses gases, doing nothing generates criticism; doing something creates mayhem.

The big hip-pocket concerns — like the tanking economy, falling house prices and growing unemployment — will obviously be the hottest political topics in the next three years. But Kyoto policy, water allocation and other resource management topics will not be far behind.

Carter's main focus on these issues — and the focus of his advocacy in Cabinet — will be how climate change, RMA and water policies impact on the farmers, forest owners and horticulturists who look to his portfolio for leadership and support. But there lies the nub of his challenge — he can only work within the constraints of what his Cabinet colleagues and the wider, largely urban, public will accept.

He also has to contend at the Cabinet table with the spirited advocacy of environment and climate change minister Nick Smith. How well they work with each other and their individual clout with the Cabinet inner circle will have a huge effect on the shape of environmental policy development and the buy-in from resource-based industries and the general public.

Carter and Smith are in many respects like chalk and cheese. Carter likes to consult and weigh his options before backing a position. His methodical, businesslike approach and eye for detail contrasts greatly with Smith, who is something of a loner ... an enthusiast who can be captivated by novel ideas.

Smith's passion for causes and mercurial, terrier-like personality has got him into trouble at times — not the least in the courts, defending gagging writs from an international chemical company and the Exclusive Brethren, and for attacking the secretive processes of the Family Court. 

In contrast, Carter was slammed earlier this month by NZ Farmers Weekly commentator Alan Emerson for being invisible in parliament. An analysis of Carter's contributions in parliament in recent years show the criticism is not totally fair — he's been active in many debates. His failing has been his inability to attract media coverage.

Being a moderate and rational farmer from Canterbury won't have appealed to generation X & Y Press Gallery journalists, who would far prefer to feed off the utterances of a Winston Peters or a Rodney Hide. Short of exposing government incompetence in a high profile portfolio or making a major personal pratfall, Opposition MPs normally struggle to attract media attention.

Also, the man Carter was marking last term — Jim Anderton — was an excellent ag & forestry minister, and too old and cunning to be tripped up.

Now he's in office, these realities no longer hold much water. Carter's in the front-line and his core constituents, particularly farmers, need to see him get some runs on the board.

In his favour, many farmers — particularly in the South Island  — tend to see Carter as one of their own and there is much faith and hope that he will deliver them policies they favour. In contrast, Smith is viewed with deep suspicion for being too green.

Neither stereotype is very useful. All ministers are very mindful of the concerns of blue-green voters in the big cities and this will temper any tendency to run agendas that could be perceived as anti-conservation.

The ministerial water-use forum that Carter organised in the week before Christmas was clearly a signal by the new government that it had heard farmer concerns.  But most of the resulting media coverage was criticism from the green and outdoor recreation groups who weren't invited.

National's strategists won't want to trigger this sort of response too often. The party can't afford for Jo Average to perceive that it favours polluting or extractive industries over the concerns of ordinary New Zealanders.  Especially not at a time when voters are becoming increasingly strident about polluted lakes and rivers. Not when the revised ETS, when it emerges later this year, must include consumer carbon charges if it is to have any credibility at all.  

The biggest challenge for Carter will therefore be to manage the expectations of his resource-user constituency, a task complicated by the populist approach of Federated Farmers to resource management issues. Instead of helping their members adapt to a low-carbon and water-scarce world, the federation has persuaded many farmers to adopt a defiant stance in the face of inevitable change.

Carter has enough on his plate without having to tell his mates they're wrong.

- Trevor Walton

What do you think?

I think there are going to be big challenges for our new Minister. He has not said much in the House since his inception & it will be interesting to see how he gets on with the terrier Nick Smith. The carbon issue is a hard one that won't go away, but I find it hard to see the Nats taking it seriously. But I will keep reading your blogs Trev

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