Saturday, April 22, 2006

Paul Thomas: Hoping for rain won't avert a power crisis

What exactly are governments for? It used to be said that a government's fundamental responsibilities were sound money and the defence of the realm.

Sound money essentially meant price stability - in other words, your money went as far this year as it had last year - and universal acceptance so that when you ventured abroad Johnny Foreigner was only too happy to take your pounds because they were worth a barrow-load of the local currency cum lavatory paper.

Successive New Zealand governments have kept inflation under control by contracting the job out to the Reserve Bank and have adopted the Pontius Pilate approach to the exchange rate, leaving the dollar to sink or swim in the storm-tossed waters of the money markets.

As for defence of the realm, that hasn't been on our government's to-do list since we decided to leave it to the Aussies (on the assumption that any predators wanting to get their hands on us would come via Australia) and geography.

So what's left?

Well, you'd think that ensuring the power supply would be up there. Without it, industry and commerce can't function, workers don't get paid, children and old folks starve to death and the able-bodied huddle together for warmth in a miasma of candle smoke and body odour.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that but, after the usual equivocation and arse-covering, it's being admitted that we may have to put up with power cuts this winter. How do we know autumn has arrived? The days are shorter, the nights are colder, leaves are falling and power-saving tips are appearing in the media.

Our traditional response is to assume she'll be right but according to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, that ain't necessarily so. A six-year study has concluded that El Nino's about to take a two to three-decade breather, which means lighter westerly winds, less rain and less water in the lakes.

Dr Jim Renwick, who headed the study, reckons the next 20 to 30 years could be "tricky," which is boffin-speak for cold, dark and miserable.

Successive governments have farmed out responsibility for ensuring the power supply to Mother Nature and, frankly, she's proving unreliable.

You may think that, instead of crossing its fingers and hoping for rain, the Government should get a little more proactive in dealing with the almost annual power crisis. You may think it's time we had a full and frank national debate in which all the alternatives are on the table.

That's unlikely to happen for the simple reason that as soon as some unworldly soul uttered the word "nuclear," he or she would be howled down. Before you could say "Chernobyl" there'd be an official announcement to the effect that nuclear power is not an option; not now, not ever.

This is the paradox of contemporary New Zealand. Despite being in many ways the very model of a liberal society, there's a most illiberal tendency to shut down debate on certain subjects by responding to the mere mention of them with hysteria, bullying and ad hominem argument.

We see it whenever there's a suggestion that we should revisit our stand-off with the United States and we saw it just the other day when the Maori Party's Dr Pita Sharples demanded the resignation of Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres. What triggered this call was de Bres' disinclination to endorse the withering critique of our treatment of Maori delivered by some United Nations functionary who felt that 10 days in the country was sufficient basis on which to demand far-reaching changes to our political and constitutional arrangements.

One of the tactics for stifling debate is the assertion that the nation has already made up its mind: being clean, green, neutral and nuclear-free is now at the core of our national identity so to question these principles is to strike at the very heart of what it means to be a New Zealander.

However, it's arguable that these principles were adopted too recently to be accorded this status and that not enough of us have embraced them - as opposed to gone along with them - for them to form part of our national identity. It could even be argued that clean, green, neutral, nuclear-free New Zealand is more a political agenda than a summary of what we as a nation stand for.

But if these things are embedded in our collective consciousness and central to our self-image, then we should be happy to defend them against popgun attacks from fringe-dwellers and contrarians. If their merit is self-evident, it shouldn't be much of a debate.

We're constantly told that global warming poses a deadly threat to the planet. Two years ago Professor James Lovelock, one of the first researchers to sound the alarm about the greenhouse effect and the author of the Gaia hypothesis so beloved by New Agers and the Green movement, called for the world community to embrace nuclear energy as the best strategy for avoiding the cataclysmic consequences of global warming.

He was, of course, denounced and ridiculed and a cone of silence descended, pierced only by the ever more apocalyptic warnings of what global warming means for life as we know it.

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