Drilling further into the Government’s hole

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 13 April 2018

When you are in a hole, stop drilling. That must have been the Government’s motivation for stopping oil and gas exploration.

To say that the past weeks were not quite ideal from the coalition’s viewpoint would be an understatement. The Radio NZ saga, the farce over Russian spies and dubious events around the Provincial Growth Fund did not make it look like the most competent of administrations.

But instead of announcing something positive for a change and getting out of their hole, the Government added yet another policy blunder to its record.

To be clear, I am not talking about the substance of the decision to end offshore drilling.

It is legitimate to debate the cases for and against offshore exploration. Concerns about job losses in the industry and fears of a potential Deepwater Horizon disaster in New Zealand waters are both understandable.

It is much harder to link yesterday’s announcement to climate change. Whatever we do on exploration in New Zealand will do nothing to domestic, let alone global, consumption of hydrocarbons.

However, what is neither understandable nor sensible is how this Government decision was made.

Of the three partners in this Government, only the Greens had committed themselves to ending oil and gas exploration. Parts of Labour may have been sympathetic to it but it was not part of Labour’s manifesto. And New Zealand First never was in favour of a policy that would do serious damage to regional economic development.

The Government’s media conference made it abundantly clear how divided even ministers are on the decision. Shane Jones, as Minister of Regional Development, could barely hide his anger. It did not appear as if he had even been consulted on it.

But Shane Jones’ frustration is not the main problem. The problem is that no-one else had been asked to submit their views on the decision.

This is a Government that purports to be in favour of openness and transparency. It is led by a Prime Minister who promised us in her election campaign that “The Government I lead will be a government that listens, then acts.”

Such promises ring hollow when pivotal decisions like ending oil and gas exploration are forced on the country without consultation, cost benefit analysis or public debate.

This is not how to govern a country. The Government just dug itself deeper into its political hole.