Government Threats and Party Politics: Why we need an independent climate commission

To date, New Zealand’s climate change policy has been characterised by political squabbling and inaction.

So let’s be real here. To get New Zealand on track to a safe, thriving, zero carbon future, we’ll need to avoid being hamstrung by politics along the way.

Here at Generation Zero we believe that part of the solution is to establish an independent climate commission, tasked with providing expert advice, recommending targets, monitoring progress, and holding the government to account.

Independent climate commissions play instrumental roles in countries like Denmark, Finland, and the UK. Since its establishment in 2008, for example, the UK Government has adopted every target recommended by its independent commission, putting the UK on track for an 80% emissions reduction by 2050.

But the key word here is independent commission.

The problem with insufficient independence from government, and the creeping threat of politically-motivated rebuke, has been well illustrated by a recent New Zealand controversy.

National MP Alfred Ngaro hit the headlines in May 2017 after suggesting that community agencies who were critical of the government risked losing their funding. Mr Ngaro’s comments, made in the context of his new Associate Social Housing Ministerial role, were rightfully condemned by media and political commentators. David Farrar of Kiwiblog described the threat as “just wrong”,1 while public law expert Andrew Geddis noted that government standover tactics weren’t just morally dubious, but “flat out illegal”.2

The Ngaro episode can’t be dismissed as an isolated incident. Back in 2013, Prime Minister John Key implicitly threatened to cut funding to the Human Rights Commission after they criticised the government’s new spying powers.3 And a Victoria University study from the same year, titled ‘Fears, Constraints, and Contracts: The democratic reality for New Zealand’s community and voluntary sector’, analyses how National-led and Labour-led governments have suppressed debate, including through funding cuts.4

What this highlights is how easily government interactions and policy implementation on politically-charged issues - like housing, surveillance, or climate change - can fall prey to partisan politics.

It is easy to imagine a climate commission refraining from providing truly free and frank advice, or from criticising a wayward government, if threatened by funding cuts or personal dismissal.

The issue of independence could determine the success or failure of a climate commission in New Zealand.

In our Zero Carbon Act, we propose establishing a climate commission as a Parliamentary Office, which is appointed by, funded by, and reports to Parliament (rather than the government). There are currently three Offices of Parliament in New Zealand: the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Much like a climate commission, their main purpose is to hold the government to account.

We prefer this option to an Independent Crown Entity, which is ultimately accountable to government, and, as we saw with the Human Rights Commission in 2013, is more exposed to politically-influenced threats and government oversight.

When Lord Deben, the Chair of the UK’s climate commission and ex-Conservative Party MP, visited earlier this year to discuss how a commission might work in New Zealand, we asked him if there was anything he’d change about the UK’s current model. His response? Parliament should’ve introduced even stronger laws to prevent a future UK government from undermining the commission’s work, such as by cutting their funding.

Here in New Zealand, we need to ensure our Parliament establishes a climate commission which is as independent as possible from the outset.

You can read more about our proposed Zero Carbon Act and role of the independent climate commission here.

- James Young-Drew




 Image credit: Geoffrey Whiteway, CC-BY-NC