What To Do About Te Kuha?

The new Labour / New Zealand First / Greens government will be tested by the Buller District Council’s decision to grant resource consent to Stevenson mining to establish the Te Kuha mine, a 109 hectare coal mine not far from Westport. The mine will traverse public conservation land and land managed by the Buller District council.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described climate change as her generation’s nuclear-free moment. It is a great soundbite, but if the new government is serious about climate change they have no choice but to overrule the Buller Council’s decision. We have to give up fossil fuels. The coal needs to stay in the ground.

The government can stop the mine because conservation land is involved; Eugenie Sage, Minister for Conservation, can refuse to give consent. As a Green MP she has an obligation to do so. However, Labour and New Zealand First will be acutely aware of the need for more employment opportunities on the West Coast. The mine would provide a much needed, if short-lived, economic boost for the region. They will be sorely tempted to put short-term localized gain ahead of the long-term obligations to combat climate change.

It is a tough call. Some areas and some people unfairly bear the brunt of efforts to mitigate climate change. The West Coast is one these regions. Mining and forestry are its staples.

One possible solution might be to reprise the idea of a basic income that was explored in the Labour Party’s Future of Work conference in 2016. A liveable basic income could be paid out to everyone living in the Buller District for the next 5 or 10 years on top of whatever other income they receive. This would be compensation for the lost opportunities for the region caused by the government stopping the new mine on behalf of the rest of the country, to help meet our climate change obligations.

The rate of a single person’s superannuation is a good starting point – at present $900 (before tax) per fortnight, perhaps with half that amount for anyone under 16yrs old.

The number of people affected would be relatively small. The entire Buller region has a population of around 10,000. The basic income could be paid out of the annual increase in earnings of the National Superannuation fund without making much of a dent in the growth of the fund. The NZ Superfund gained $1.28 billion last year, according to its annual report. A Basic Income for all of Buller region would only cost around $220 million per year.

The Basic Income would bring money into the region and give Coasters time to develop their own environmentally friendly alternatives. The people who live in the region are best placed to do this. Governments and other agencies, no matter how well intentioned, do not know the area or the culture. Give the local people a guaranteed income for a while and let them get on with it.

Scupper the mine, but make sure the people of Buller are not unfairly penalized by the decision. Climate change is another nuclear-free moment. Be bold. Be brave. Do what is needed. But recognise the need to compensate those who have to “take one for the team.” Basic income could be the tool to do this.