On virtue signalling and virtue

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
5 October, 2018

It would take a humbug not to feel proud seeing our Prime Minister on the world stage last week. Coinciding with the 125th anniversary of New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to grant women the vote, her appearance was a profound affirmation of New Zealand’s openness, diversity and inclusiveness.

And in contrast to the political bombast that dominates world news, hearing Jacinda Ardern espouse humanist values like fairness and kindness – along with strength – to describe her leadership style, was a welcome relief.

Her presence at the United Nations was a triumph, signalling many of our young nation’s greatest virtues.

But signalling virtue is not always the same thing as being virtuous.

We can see that only too well with last week’s release of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Regulatory Impact Statement on the coalition government’s proposed legislation banning further offshore exploration permits.

The Ministry notes that the Government’s policy objective is to “to show global leadership by demonstrating that New Zealanders can be better off while taking action to reduce our impact on the climate.” It is this virtue signal that led to the offshore exploration ban.

Unfortunately, the official advice from MBIE suggests the policies will not achieve their desired objectives.

Rather than reducing carbon emissions, as gas supplies decline, MBIE warns of the possible closure of Methanex’s New Zealand plant, resulting in increased global greenhouse gas emissions as methanol production is shifted to less efficient overseas plants.

And far from increasing the prosperity of New Zealanders, the Ministry advises that the policies will likely make New Zealand poorer.

The costs run into the billions. The mid-point of MBIE’s forecast losses to the Crown to 2050 is $16.6 billion (with a net present value of $7.9 billion). The mid-point of forecast losses to the petroleum industry over the same period is $19.2 billion (with an NPV of $2.1 billion).

In addition, the Ministry advises of likely broader, unquantified economic impacts on the Taranaki and national economies, along with risks to the security and affordability of the supply of gas and electricity.

Rarely has the discrepancy between virtuous objectives and delivered values been greater than in the offshore exploration ban.

The Prime Minister and the Government should take heed that they will be judged not by the virtues they signal, but by those they deliver.

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