Seeking Sustainability


This is a note I prepared for some colleagues. written on October 1, 2007.

Keywords: Environment & Resources;  Governance;
Seeking sustainability is like transforming the economy. It is always going on and there is no once in a lifetime policy, although (as for the economic transformation) there are periods of acceleration.


Let’s define the sustainability issue as follows
            – Sustainability is a strategy which does not compromise future generations; and
            – A sustainability policy is one which pursues sustainability in a politically robust way.
            – By politically robust it is meant that the policy objectives and framework will largely remain in place at least a generation out. (The crucial implication is there is a wide cross party political consensus for such a policy.)

(Probably the definition could be improved but will do for this stage.)

Existing Sustainable Policies

When I look at the spectrum of policies that the country has, I suggest the following could be described as ‘sustainable’.

1. Fisheries (since the early 1980s) – the ITQ system, although there is a struggle with the parameters;

2. The Conservation Estate (since the late 1980s) – the acceptance that certain areas are not primarily for development.

3. Public provision for retirement (since the early 1990s) – following the agreement between Labour and National. Note that again there are some disagreements over parameters especially rates (NZF) and age of entitlement (me).

4. Settling Maori Grievances (from about the mid 1990s) – although I accept there is some looseness in the policy framework, and individual settlements can be very fragile where there is conflict between iwi (as in the CNI negotiations).

5. Indigenous forests (2000)
6. Global emissions (since about a fortnight ago?) – this might be a bit optimistic, but I was heartened by the national acceptance. We will have to wait to see whether it beds down.

We can add other items for the list. The Rule of Law is one. Bipartisan Foreign Affairs may be another, although I am not expert enough to judge. There may be some in education, although I cant help observing that there are always calls for what amounts to revolutions there.

One, I almost put on the list and then changed my mind, is fiscal sustainability. We have made big improvements since the 1980s, and there is a general acceptance of the principle by most parties. However the 2005 election shows that the parameter issues are too technical, for me to be really confident that we will not have an outbreak of fiscal instability sometime in the next decade.

I guess the point about the previous paragraph (aside from my concern to develop fiscal sustainability) is that we need a reasonably rigorous standard in order to add to the list.

The Immediate Future

The following seem to me to be reasonably low fruit.

7. The broadband roll-out (at least in terms of long term goals, although perhaps not the immediate path to them).

8. The long term response to peak oil. (Not the short term because again the immediate path will be contested.)

9. Water

10. Private provision for retirement. (We may almost be there with Kiwisaver.)

(It would be a very full policy creation process if we could get all of these in the next three years.)

The Policy Creation Process

When I reviewed the first list, I was struck that in each case (with one exception, I’ll come back to) the implementation of the sustainable policy followed a leadership process, in which the government took the leadership and imposed the policy, with the opposition packing behind it after implementation. (There had to be a consultation process, of course.)

What Guy Salmon’s report on Nordic decision-making suggested that there was an alternative approach which may be perhaps more appropriate for an MMP regime. In this the political parties agreed on the policy framework before it was it was implemented.

Let’s call this the ‘pre-implementation consensus approach’. PICA (Perhaps someone can think of a better expression.)

The one New Zealand example I can think of is public provision for retirement where the framework was the result of negotiations between the government (at the time National) and the opposition (then Labour) plus the other parties the outcome of which was subsequently implemented (the majority of parties were keen to get the item off the political agenda).

Guy is saying that this process happens much more frequently in the Nordic countries – probably because they have a longer tradition of MMP whereas the leadership process probably reflects FPP.


The general implication is that we may move more frequently to the use of PICA as MMP beds in. The practical implication that while our goal may be further policy sustainability, we may need to be concerned with accelerating the process by which to make this come about.
As a footnote, there is also some short term policy areas where we may get consensus. (A possibility is innovation policy.) However, while we may be able to get considerable consensus for a policy in the short term, the policy frameworks in such instances are likely to be very different in a decade as we learn from our experiences.