By Michael Reddell 20/04/2018

That was the title of a speech David Parker gave a couple of weeks ago.  Parker is, as you will recall, a man wearing many hats: Minister for the Environment, Associate Minister of Finance, Minister for Trade and Export Growth, and Attorney-General.  Since he was speaking to a seminar organised by the Resource Management Law Association, this speech looked like it might touch on all his areas of portfolio responsibility.

In passing, I’ll note that he clearly doesn’t live in Wellington.  He introduces his speech lamenting that New Zealand had just had its hottest summer on record.  Most Wellingtonians –  no matter how liberal (indeed, I recently heard an academic working on climate issues make exactly this point) – revelled in a summer that for once felt almost like those the rest of New Zealand normally enjoys.   The sea water was even enjoyably swimmable not just bracing or “refreshing”.

But the focus of his speech is on economic growth.

First he highlights some of New Zealand’s underperformance.

New Zealand has enjoyed relatively strong nominal economic growth over recent years, bolstered by strong commodity prices, population growth and tourism. More inputs, mostly people, have been added into the economy but, with population growth stripped out, per capita growth has been poor at about 1 per cent per annum.

That underperformance has been the story of decades now.   And poor as the growth in per capita real GDP has been, productivity growth –  real GDP per hour worked –  has been worse.  In one particular bad period, over the last five years or so, labour productivity growth has been close to zero (around 0.2-0.3 per cent per annum on average).

Parker is obviously aware of this, beginning his next paragraph “we also have a productivity problem”, but seems more than a little confused about the nature of the issue.

Capital has been misallocated, including into speculative asset classes such as rental housing, rather than into growing our points of comparative advantage.

But…….your government (rightly) keeps telling us that too few houses have been built, laments increases in rents etc.   If we are going to have anything like the rate of population growth we’ve run over recent decades (let alone the last few years) ideally more real resources would be devoted to house-building, not less.  Simply changing the ownership of existing houses doesn’t divert real resources from anything else, or even use material amount of real resources.

The Minister goes on

We aim to diversify our exports and markets as we move from volume to value. We want to change investment signals so more capital goes towards the productive economy rather than unproductive speculation.  Where we need immigration, it will be more targeted.

That last sentence sounds promising, even tantalising.  But it doesn’t seem consistent with the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, with Labour Party policy on immigration, or with the (in)action of the government on immigration policy to date.     Our large-scale non-citizen immigration programme runs on unchanged, complemented by the big increases in recent years in the numbers here on short-term work visas.    A reduced rate of population growth would reduce the extent to which real resources needed to be devoted to meet the –  real and legitimate –  needs of a fast-growing population.

The Minister also makes a bold claim

I am an experienced CEO and company director. I know from experience that we can achieve economic, export and productivity growth within environmental limits.

No doubt, as absolute statements, those claims are true. But surely the relevant question is “how much?”     After all, the message Labour and the Greens were running in the election campaign was that what apparent economic success there had been in recent years was built on “raping and pillaging” the environment –  water pollution, offshore oil exploration, emissions etc.   And yet, as the Minister notes, even that “economic success” didn’t add up to much: weak per capita GDP growth, almost non-existent productivity growth, no progress in closing the gaps to the rest of the advanced world.  And what of exports?

The past 15 years have been pretty dreadful, and the last time the export share of the economy was less than it was in the March 2017 year was the year to March 1976 –  back in the days when (a) export prices had plummeted, and (b) the economy was ensnared in import protection, artifically reducing both exports and imports (our openness to the world more generally).

In the Minister’s own words

But economic management over recent years has put pressure on our social wellbeing and our environment.

So how, we might wonder, is a greater emphasis on environmental protection going to be consistent with the economic growth, and the exports and productivity growth that David Parker says the government aspires to?

As Minister for Economic Development and for Trade and Export Growth, my priorities reflect the reality that our economic success will be underpinned by a more productive, sustainable, competitive and internationally-connected New Zealand.

It is great to see growth in the value of output from our productive sectors. The Government wants to work with them to ensure that the right conditions are in place for firms to thrive and trade, and that we maximise the value of the goods we produce, and encourage high-quality investment in New Zealand. We want our sectors and regions to realise their full potential.

Economic growth and trade helps us create a greater number of sustainable jobs with higher wages and an improved standard of living for all New Zealanders.

However, the Government is clear that economic growth cannot continue to be at the cost of the environment. This is not idealism: it is grounded in common sense. Protecting our environment safeguards our economy in the long term – our country has built its economy and reputation on our natural capital.

I’m not arguing against improving environmental standards, perhaps especially around fresh water.  Improvements in the environment are typically seen as a normal good: as we get richer we want (and typically get) more of it.  But those gains usually come at some (direct) economic cost. Major change isn’t just wished into existence.

In some places, perhaps, these changes are easier than in others.  If the tradables sector of your economy is, in any case, in a transition  away from heavy industry to, say, financial or business services (perhaps the UK experience), you are naturally moving from industries that might otherwise tend to pollute heavily towards those that don’t.  And farming –  and land-based industries –  might be a small part of the economy anyway.

But this is New Zealand.  And in New Zealand probably 85 per cent of all our exports are natural-resource based, and total services exports (even including tourism) are no higher as a share of GDP than they were 15 or 20 year ago.  Not very many new industries seem to find it economic to both develop here, and then remain here.   We –  and the Minister –  might wish it were otherwise, but up to now it hasn’t been.  Instead, what export growth we’ve had has been in industries where the government is often –  and perhaps rightly –  concerned about the environmental side-effects.

In his speech, the Minister declares that as Minister for the Environment improving the quality of freshwater is his “number one priority”. I might have hoped that fixing the urban planning laws was at least up there, but lets grant him his priority for now. How does he envisage bringing about change?

In environmental matters there are only three ways to change the future – education, regulation and price. Of these the most important for water is regulation

And regulation comes at a cost, reducing the competitiveness of firms and industries that are no longer free to do as they previously did.  The best presumption then has to be that future growth in affected sectors will be less than previously, and less than it would otherwise have been.  Sometimes, regulatory and tax initiatives spark brilliant new technologies enabling industries to move to a whole new level.  But you can’t on that.  You have to work on the assumption that regulation costs.  Those costs might be worth bearing, but you shouldn’t pretend they aren’t there.

The same will, presumably, go for including agriculture in the emissions trading system, however gradually.   Relative to the past, firms facing such a price will no longer be as competitive as they otherwise would have been.    And experts tell us that as yet there are few technologies for effectively reducing animal emissions –  other than having fewer animals.

And then, of course, there are the direct bans.  The ban on new offshore oil exploration permits hadn’t been announced when the Minister gave his speech, but it will –  by explicit design –  reduce output in the exploration sector and, over time, in the domestic production of oil and gas.    It might be –  as some of the government’s acolytes argue – “the thing to do”, “leading the way”, “this generation’s nuclear-free moment” [that one really doesn’t persuade if you thought the Lange government’s gesture was a mistake too], but it must come at an economic cost to New Zealanders.  An economy totally reliant on the ability to skilfully exploit its natural resources, consciously and deliberately chooses to leave some chunk of those –  size unknown –  untapped.

Again, over the course of the last 45 years –  the period of that exports chart –  we’ve had a lot of oil and gas development.  All else equal, our economic performance can only be set back without it – not perhaps this year, or next, but over time.  And it all adds up.

Reading through to the end of the Minister’s speech there is simply no credible story for how he, or the government, expects to be able to do all these things and still see some transformation in the outlook for per capita GDP growth, or growth in productivity or exports.  Indeed, there is nothing there to explain why the outlook won’t be worsened by the sorts of initiatives –  each perhaps worthwhile in their own terms.

It might be different if the government was willing to do something serious about immigration policy, rather than just carrying on with the bipartisan “big New Zealand” strategy.   When natural resources are a crucial part of your economy –  and everyone accepts they still are in New Zealand –  then adding ever more people, by policy initiative, to a fixed quantity of natural resource is a straightforward recipe for depleting the stock of resources per capita, and thus spreading ever more thinly the income that flows from those natural resources.

It is pretty basic stuff: Norway wouldn’t be so much richer per capita than the UK –  both producing oil and gas from the North Sea –  if Norway had 65 million people.  And if Norway decided to get out of the oil and gas business –  leaving underground a big part of their natural resource endowment –  they’d be crazy to drive up their population anyway.    But that is exactly the thrust of what the New Zealand government is doing between:

  • what is aspires to do on water,
  • its ambitious emissions targets, in a country with very high marginal abatement costs, and
  • the ban on new oil and gas exploration permits

even as it keeps on targeting more non-citizen migrants (per capita) than almost any other country on the planet, and as the export share of GDP has been under downward pressure anyway.

It is not as if there is a compelling alternative in which export industries based on other than natural resources are thriving, boosted immensely by the infusion of top-end global talent, in ways that might make us think that natural resource industries could easily be dispensed with and a rapidly rising population was putting us on a path to a more prosperoous, productive, and environmentally-friendly future.  Its been a dream, or an aspiration, of some for decades.  But there is barely a shred of evidence of anything like that happening in this most remote of locations.

It might all be a lot different if the government was willing to step aside from the “big New Zealand” mentality, or put aside for a moment fears of absurd comparisons with Donald Trump –  recall that (a) our immigration is almost all legal, and (b) residence approvals here (per capita) are three times those in the US (under Clinton/Bush/Obama).

If the government were to move to phase in a residence approvals target of 10000 to 15000 per annum (the per capita rate in the US), with supporting changes to work visa policies, we’d pretty quickly see quite a different –  and better –  economic climate.   We’d no longer have to devote so much resource (labour) to simply building to support a growing population –  houses, roads [rail if you must], schools, shops, offices.  All else equal our interest rates –  typically the highest in the advanced world –  would be quite a bit lower, and the real exchange rate could be expected to fall a long way.  I don’t think there is a mention in the whole of David Parker’s speech of the real exchange rate, but it is a key element in coping successfully with the sorts of transitions the Minister says he aspires to.   Farmers, for example, will be able to compete, even with tougher water regulations, even with the inclusion of agriculture in the ETS.  And more industries in other sector will find it remunerative to develop here, and remain based here.  We’d actually have a chance of meeting both environmental and economic objectives instead of –  as the government would see it –  having consistently failed on both counts.

Last year, I ran several posts (including this column) making the point that rapid population growth –  mostly the consequence of immigration policy –  was the single biggest factor behind the continued growth in, and high level of, carbon emissions in New Zealand over recent decades.  In other words, we had made a rod for our own back and then –  through the process of driving up the real exchange rate –  made it even more difficult and costly to abate those emissions without materially undermining our standard of living.  OIA requests established that neither MBIE nor the Ministry for the Environment had even explored the issue.

It wasn’t a popular view, but I stand by the argument.  In a country still very heavily dependent on natural resources, if you care about the environment, and about “doing our bit” on carbon emissions, it is simply crazy to keep on actively driving up the population.  Doubly so, if you think you can do so and still improve productivity, export growth, and overall economic performance.  The Productivity Commission is due to release soon its draft report on making the transition to a low emissions economy.  I hope they have been willing to recognise, and explicitly address, the integral connection to immigration policy in the specific circumstances New Zealand faces.  Not wishing to confront the connection –  an awkward one for the pro-immigration people on the left in particular –  won’t make it go away.