Nick Smith: in the Nick of time

Nick Smith has been put in charge of some of the most contentious issues facing the government. Luckily he doesn't mind a fight

Last updated 23:47 22/11/2008
LIKE HIM OR LUMP HIM: Nick Smith is congratulated on securing the electorate and party vote last weekend.

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Nick Smith is a highly strung green in a government that wants to build roads, bridges and other whopping objects. He is the climate change minister in a government whose coalition partner thinks climate change is a hoax. He is a notably pale politician who must help clinch a deal with the Maori Party over the beaches, where brown and white once threatened to come to blows.

Luckily Smith is used to being in trouble.

Right now he's a minister without an office, as Labour is still clearing its stuff out of the Beehive. But the MP for Nelson, in Napier to help train National's new MPs, fires volleys of bullet-points through the phone. Smith's manner has always been staccato: the PhD in civil engineering - his subject was landslides - is one of the brightest people in parliament.

That is probably why he got the ACC portfolio even though he wasn't the spokesman in that area. ACC is big, complicated, and political gelignite, and National has promised to "investigate" whether parts of it should be opened to competition. There's another possible firestorm. Smith remains cheerful. "It's a really interesting area to work in."

Smith is one of the rare National MPs who stayed in the news during nine years of opposition impotence. His disputes and his crusades are legion. What other MP has been convicted of contempt of court? How many others attracted a multimillion-dollar libel claim from a multinational? "We constantly joke, `Nick, don't get arrested again'," his electorate chairman, Russell Wilson, said recently.

But look, Smith says unconvincingly, he's changed now. "I've mellowed with age," says the 43-year-old, "and I've spent too much of my time with lawyers."

The government of John Key has put infrastructure spending at the centre of its programme. But what will the bulldozers do to the environment?

"Inevitably, if you want to get more infrastructure built," says the minister for the environment, "that's going to come into clash with resource management law."

Environmentalists are profoundly suspicious of National's plans to reform the Resource Management Act and to "soften" the Labour government's Emissions Trading Scheme, the official programme to reduce greenhouse gases.

Smith replies that he doesn't so much want to alter the environmental outcomes of disputes under the law, but the process. At present, decisions are made by dozens of local bodies, some of them tiny, and then routinely appealed to the Environment Court. The result is often expensive and unnecessary delay.

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He offers a couple of examples. "TrustPower has applied for a quite controversial power scheme on the Wairau River in Marlborough. The process has been awful. It went to a commissioners' hearing and it dragged out for more than two years, but everybody knew from the word go that it would be appealed to the Environment Court. I have sympathy with the Marlborough District Council, which is the administering body for the law. They don't have a high level of expertise with a very large hydro development. They've never had one before.

"And an organisation like Fish and Game has spent hundreds of thousands of their environmental money [fighting the proposal] knowing all the time that the thing was going to the Environment Court.

"Another example is a highly controversial Mokihinui hydro scheme on the West Coast proposed by Meridian. Now Buller District Council is one of our smallest councils in the country. For them to be dealing with a $200m proposal... You've got a council with a population of 3000 or 4000 processing a consent that's got major implications way beyond the Buller District." The officer concerned with processing resource consent applications, he says, was probably also the dog control officer.

Smith wants to set up a new body, the Environmental Protection Agency, with a trained and professional staff equipped to do the administrative work with these complex proposals, which would be considered either by the Environment Court or a board of inquiry. Time-wasting and expensive hearings by tiny local bodies would be omitted.

The RMA, he says, is an impediment to efficient investment in infrastructure "and that's not helping the environment either". Auckland has a worse air pollution problem than Los Angeles, he says, with cars stopping and starting in congested traffic. A better roading network would help the environment.

The RMA, despite some changes by the Labour-led government, presented huge difficulties for the development of environmentally friendly electricity projects such as wind and geothermal. Smith believes there is great potential for green power in New Zealand. The geothermal area of the central North Island had the advantage that it was close to the major growth areas of Auckland and the Waikato. There was some potential for hydro although "we're certainly not going to be damming every last river", he says. "And there is some longer-term opportunity around tidal and wave energy."

This might sound green, but green lobbyists are not necessarily convinced. They will wait for Smith's detailed proposals and see how the law changes work in practice.

Likewise with the Emissions Trading Scheme, which National is to reconsider. The scheme sets limits on greenhouse gases, penalises those who emit clouds of them and rewards those who don't. Labour had already allowed agriculture, which produces half of the country's greenhouse gases, and exporters a long "holiday" before they had to enter the scheme in 2018. Environmentalists were angered at this and now wonder whether National will do something even worse.

Won't Smith just cut a special deal for National's political mates, the farmers and businesspeople?

"The reality is," Smith replies, "our mandate went far beyond farmers and businesspeople. And what's more, you can't separate farmers and business from the general interests of New Zealanders. New Zealand Steel employs a huge number of New Zealanders. It has a huge impact on the south Auckland, north Waikato economy. Same too with the aluminium smelter in Invercargill. The farming sector there's hardly a part of New Zealand that all of our interests are not connected with agriculture and business. To pretend that they are special interests - those interests go the core of New Zealanders."

Again, time will tell. In the meantime, Smith appeals for a bipartisan approach - and here the hope of consensus seems forlorn, particularly with National's right-wing coalition partners.

Smith will also be involved in tricky negotiations with the Maori Party over the foreshore and seabed issue. This too is full of thorns, and is not resolvable if either Pakeha or Maori seek ownership of the beaches. However, Smith believes there is a way through the middle - one signposted by the Labour government's recent deal with Ngati Porou.

That arrangement, Smith notes, "gives local iwi a direct say in any resource consent decision around the coastal area within their area. My view is that that does give us a steer".

Shared management of the resource, with Maori getting a say and Pakeha continued access to the beaches, is a possible way. Maori, however, had a deep interest in natural resources and had sought ownership "out of frustration, in my view. Historically they feel shut out, and so they run an ownership argument".

But, he asks, "Why do we have this idea that somebody has to own a thing? Does somebody own the air? The water? The sea? Does somebody have to own the beach? Well, I'm not so sure."

Smith is a centrist who was deeply unhappy with the right-wing direction National took under Don Brash. This led to the strange incident in 2003 when Brash, having ousted Smith's good friend Bill English as leader, offered Smith the deputy's job. Smith had some kind of collapse as a result the details remained sketchy - and Brash withdrew the offer "for Dr Smith's sake and the party's".

Smith explains the episode was personal and political. English took a more inclusive approach to policy, "and so when Brash took over it was hugely uncomfortable. It was not where I wanted the National Party to go. I like Don as a person but my view is that his politics belonged to a previous era."

John Key, however, had taken it back to the centre, and now "I feel National is in the same head-space where I am".


* Aged 43, the second-youngest member of National's front bench. Minister for the environment, climate change issues, and ACC.
* MP for Tasman 1990-96. Since then, MP for Nelson.
* Entered parliament aged only 24.
* Held a variety of portfolios in National governments in the 1990s.
* Partner of Linley Newport, an economist, to whom he got engaged in May. They plan to marry in March.
* Previously married for 20 years to Cyndy, with whom he had two children.

- Sunday Star Times

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