Opinion & Analysis
OPINION: Humbling defeats are a great way to learn.
Just ask Education Minister Hekia Parata after last week's class-sizes backdown.
But humbling defeats can also breed a bunker mentality.
The Government's defeat last year on the mining of highly protected conservation land is such an issue.
Once bitten, twice shy – the Government is quietly determined not to be blind-sided again in its attempts to gain not only public support, but global investment, for exploiting New Zealand's large, relatively untapped mineral reserves, most of which are in the vast offshore Exclusive Economic Zone.
However, if there's one thing most political observers agree on, the Key administration has lost its touch for political management so far in this parliamentary term.
That being so, it would be interesting to know who – if anyone – has noticed in the Beehive that, this week, Greenpeace says it has already collected 150,000 signatures for a petition opposing deep-sea oil drilling.
Given that most of the 23 oil and gas exploration blocks offered for tender last week by the New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals agency are in deep, offshore waters, the issue is pressing.
It will gain further currency this week with Lucy Lawless's reappearance in the dock on trespass charges from the Greenpeace occupation in February of a seismic survey ship in New Plymouth that was leaving New Zealand waters for exploration work in the Arctic Circle.
However, the opportunities at stake go far deeper than just offshore oil and gas. As legislation to govern mineral exploitation in the EEZ winds its way through Parliament, it's increasingly clear there are major political fish-hooks ahead.
One such area of conflict to emerge is the coincidence between offshore mining plans and some of the 17 Benthic Protection Areas established in 2008 to protect large areas of ocean floor from bottom-trawling fisheries.
Outcry over this destructive practice resulted in a process that looked to the casual observer like a win for the oceans by banning fishing that scrapes along the sea floor.
But as environmental groups pointed out at the time, most of the protected areas were in fact of no interest to the fishing industry.
The chickens are coming home to roost on this half-pie policy. Seabed mining is not covered by the rules governing BPAs, and some of those areas are exciting the interest of companies seeking to mine phosphate on the Chatham Rise, seamounts in the Kermadecs chain, and ironsands off the west coast of the North Island.
The political risk must be that the average person will take very little convincing that seabed mining and bottom-trawling are indistinguishable.
Never mind that the scale of activity in the case of phosphate mining is small compared with the areas scraped by active bottom-trawling.
Never mind, also, that Chatham Rock Phosphate's mining plans could replace $1billion of phosphate imports from the disputed territories of the Western Sahara and even create a new export industry.
There is obvious political power for environmental campaigners in protesting such developments as further evidence of an administration hell-bent on environmental degradation.
Behind the scenes, there are already moves afoot to consider shifting the boundaries of existing BPAs to accommodate at least some of the existing plans for offshore mining. There is even some willingness among key environmental groups to see that happen.
However, for any of these initiatives to succeed, it looks almost inevitable that others will have to be sacrificed. For example, phosphate mining on the Chatham Rise looks relatively uncontroversial, planning is well-advanced, and the project is highly fancied in the Beehive as an early win for offshore mining, partly because its economic benefits are so obvious to a farming economy.
By comparison, knocking the tops of unique, barely studied seamounts in the Kermadecs, as proposed by Australian-owned Nautilus Minerals, looks deeply problematic.
The area is subject to a well-resourced campaign backed by the US-backed Pew Environmental Group, the World Wildlife Fund, and the local Forest & Bird Protection Society to create a global ocean sanctuary.
Yet there is no available mechanism – even with the new EEZ legislation – for placing unique or special areas of the marine environment under such protection. In the absence of such mechanisms, the potential for political chaos to reign only rises.
As a consequence, it will take a lot of wisdom and fancy political footwork to navigate these issues. This will be as much a challenge to a resurgent Labour Party, which still quietly supports resource extraction, as it is to a Government with a bloody-minded determination not to be gazumped again.
For the Greens, it looks like a gift.
- © Fairfax NZ News