Yesterday, Radio New Zealand broke a story by Guyon Espiner that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Andrew Kirton, had started that job one day after leaving his previous role heading up a lobbying firm, Anacta. Anacta had been lobbying on behalf of beverage industry clients against the government’s proposed container return scheme (CRS). Shortly after Kirton’s appointment, the Government announced it was deferring the CRS because the CRS would impact the cost of living (even though, on its original proposed timeline, the CRS implementation date was earmarked for a distant 2025/2026).
While the level of influence Kirton had on the CRS deferral is up in the air, we appreciate the attention that this story has brought to the fact that the CRS has been subjected to sustained and targeted industry lobbying (in the face of consistently high levels of public, civil society and local government support for a scheme).
This lobbying is not new – it’s gone on for years. Not just in relation to the CRS, but other packaging policy too (see the discussion in this paper by the New Zealand Product Stewardship Council or the section titled “Opposition” on page 8 of this story about The Kiwi Bottle Drive campaign). It’s something campaigners like Warren Snow faced for some time, often with considerable personal consequences. Warren has since passed away and there’s still no CRS, even though he spent so much of his life campaigning for it.
This lobbying isn’t just happening in New Zealand, it’s international. If you’re interested in the plastic and packaging industry ‘distract, delay & derail‘ tactics, the Talking Trash report by Changing Markets Foundation is the one to read.
The history of this lobbying and its pernicious impact on waste policy has not been properly told in New Zealand. Fragments of the story are scattered around the place, in reports or one-off articles on narrow topics. At times, vested interest tactics have been pretty dirty, and a 2006 report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment painted a picture that suggested situations like regulatory capture have occurred. While this period of regulatory capture may have passed, its legacy of poor waste policy outcomes is still felt in New Zealand because it put us very far behind the rest of the world.
We’re still waiting for someone else to come and pull all these fragments of the lobbying story together and spell it out for everyone (a bit like a New Zealand version of the Talking Trash report). We aren’t proposing to do this here – we don’t have the time nor the resources. We simply want to start the conversation because if we don’t start to call it out, we run the risk of continually allowing it to happen. We also want to highlight how much (mostly unpaid) community labour goes into responding to industry’s endless string of constantly morphing arguments.
These morphing arguments have a pattern that looks a bit like this:
“There is no problem.
If there is a problem, it’s not our fault.
Even though it’s not our fault, we’re solving it already; give us some public money to solve it better.
OK, we aren’t solving the problem, but this new idea we just came up with is better than your idea because your idea will cost more & won’t work.
If you want to go ahead with your idea, do more research to show there’s a problem & that your idea is best.
Whatever your research shows, we’ve got some more research that says your research is wrong.
If you still want to do your idea then, OK, but put us in charge of it because we’ll do it better than you.”
This morphing line of argumentation is one of the ‘distract, delay and derail’ tactics outlined in reports like Talking Trash. It’s effective because it gobbles up advocacy resources. Responding to these arguments takes energy and time. It isn’t a quick job to throw together open letters, email templates, press releases, submit on consultations on proposals that get hijacked, or read 100+ page industry studies and generate succinct responses. While you’re doing all these things, you are taken away from the mahi of actually building a better future. Furthermore, conducting research to prove that gravity exists and the sky is blue and the grass is green (e.g. a deposit on a bottle will increase return rates), or commisioning expensive LCA studies, is not always possible due to resource constraints. However, the lack of proof can be taken as evidence that your position has no foundation in facts, especially if industry has used some of their lobbying budgets for research.
The idea that CRS would impact cost of living by astronomical proportions is a narrative started by industry opponents to the CRS that conveniently ignores how this policy is about shifting cost OFF the general community and environment, and on to producers, where this responsibility belongs. Getting this narrative on the table right now, when there are very legitimate concerns about rising prices on everything, is a great way to delay progress on virtually any policy you don’t like, and puts the onus back on the community in support to gather up the evidence (again) and organise it coherently (again), in order to counter these arguments (again). It’s a relentless comms battle, just to tread water.
Some days we get so fed up with these stupid, time-wasting games. We carry on because we have role models like Warren who persisted for much longer than we have and didn’t give up.
Policies that put people and planet before profit are always worth pushing for, and it’s no surprise they are strongly opposed by those who currently make the profit.
But sometimes we do wish it were easier to get such simple policies across the line.
In the meantime, if you’d like to support a CRS and make the community voice louder than the lobbyists, the folks over at The Kiwi Bottle Drive have created a template email you can send to the Prime Minister – find it on their website.