State of grace

Sir Geoffrey Palmer on the corridors of power.

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Ian Robertson

Power takes many guises. To regard Sir Geoffrey Palmer, you’d notice the bright, incisive eyes, the expansive smile—a gift for the political cartoonists of his day—the sagacity and the glee with which he reaches out of a conversation to seize a passing bon mot.

It’s possible to forget, then, that this is the man The Listener once (twice, actually: in 2008 and 2009) proclaimed the most powerful lawyer in the country. Palmer’s scrupulous hand appears in the legislation that practically defines modern New Zealand society. The Bill of Rights Act, the State Sector Act, the Constitutional Act 1986—his CV is a powerpoint on modern law reform.

But lay readers probably know Palmer best as the architect of the Resource Management Act, “one of the most comprehensive reforms”, he says, “in the Western world”. He insists it all began when he was seven, when his mum told him he’d better become a barrister, because he had the gift of the gab. “I suspect I was probably a damn nuisance as a kid: I was always asking questions.”

His Nelson boyhood was one of tramping, duck-shooting, floundering, whitebaiting, shellfish-gathering (he still kayaks on Nelson Haven). “I must say that I don’t think any of us understood sustainability in those days,” he confesses. “I think we believed Earth’s resources were infinite.” But those early experiences stamped the natural environment indelibly into his psyche, and if it was predictable that Palmer would soon start pondering the dilemmas around resource use, it was inevitable that he would try to do something about them.

He entered Parliament in 1979 as the Labour member for Christchurch Central, became Deputy Leader of the Opposition in 1983, then Deputy Prime Minister when Labour won the 1984 election. When David Lange resigned in 1989—amid rancour, rivalry and Rogernomics—Palmer became our 33rd Prime Minister, left to oversee those deeply unpopular economic reforms.

The voting public never got him. Even core Labour supporters regarded Palmer with suspicion. His work on the State Owned Enterprises Act only deepened their conviction that he was a closet cheerleader for the invisible hand. They mistook his intellect for aloofness, his concern for the economy (“It was desperate, just desperate”) for free-market fervour. Two months out from the 1990 elections, plummeting polls gave party subversives the justification they wanted: Palmer was rolled.

There was one portfolio, though, in which nobody questioned his motives. In 1987, he became Minister of the Environment, and held the role even when he took up the prime ministership. The Department of Conservation was born the same year. The Environment Act had just been enacted, and the Ministry for the Environment and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment already established.

Palmer’s Resource Management Act forever changed the way we regard the environment, but he’s the first to accept that it wasn’t perfect right out of the box. “You can have development, or you can have sustainability. There’s an inherent contradiction in this which we haven’t resolved yet.”

He’s bemused that, 20 years later, there’s still been so little legal interpretation of the remaining equivocations in the act. In fact, he says, almost ceaseless tinkering has left it ripe for a rewrite. “Like many law reforms in New Zealand, we do them once, big-time, then we do…an amendment here, and an amendment there, and then we see that we’ve made a mess of it.”

It will always have its critics, “but the truth”, he says, “is that environmental values are pretty important to New Zealanders, and I don’t think there’s been any diminution of that, despite the criticisms”. Present-day proposals to mine in national parks bring a rare frown:

“I think there’s a natural tendency in an economic downturn to feel, economically, a bit desperate, but the trouble with the environment is that it’s not a temporary phenomenon: it’s there for eternity, and once you’ve wrecked it, it’s wrecked.”

So is Sir Geoffrey Palmer still optimistic for Planet Earth? “I think one has to be. You have to face reality, though: you have to look at the depletion of resources, and the carrying capacity of the planet. And you have to ask yourself: ‘Can we afford to keep on doing this?’”

Unsurprisingly, he’d like to see global environmental responsibility bound in law. “We don’t have an international legislature that can make rules regulating the planet.” Climate change, he says, must be a priority. “When the Kyoto Protocol runs out, heaven knows how we’re going to handle this problem. My grandchildren, when 50 or 60 years have gone by, are not going to be in great shape to do anything about it then. It needs to be done now.

“Time is running out fast, and we lack the political will and the vision and the commitment as inhabitants of this planet to do this. And we must. I was making speeches about climate change in 1988. What is it that we don’t know? I think that we could still do something bold, but it needs leadership. And I don’t see any signs of it at the moment.

“If we’re not careful, it’ll just be the cockroaches left.”

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