On Wednesday night I attended an event at the Hyatt entitled "A Night with Robert F Kennedy Jnr".
Robert F. Kennedy Jnr (son of JFK's brother Robert) is a lawyer and environmentalist. He has been involved with a number of major court cases in the US, acting against large polluters. Despite having some issues with his voice on the night, he spoke well, and the passion he displayed for the environment was admirable.
With any kind of partisan speech like this one you have to be careful about what you believe. And yet Kennedy's speech was impressive and stacked with detail. I'm no expert on US politics, but he was certainly convincing.
The picture Kennedy paints of the US political scene is a depressing one. Corporate lobbyists work constantly to pressure the government to change the rules, and as a result environmental protection laws are often changed to exclude the polluting activities of the big coal and oil companies. Under the Bush presidency these companies almost always got their way.
Kennedy exploded the myth that the free market is bad for the environment. Kennedy argues that for every big polluter you will find evidence of a major subsidy. To illustrate this point he used the example of the coal mining industry and its claims to provide power that is cheaper than any other source. Kennedy argues that these claims are false, because of the other costs to taxpayers of mining activities. These include the additional infrastructure costs (such as damage to road and rail networks caused by shifting coal), health costs (the mercury poisoning of waterways may be causing illness and cognitive impairment in children), and the costs needed to clean up dirty or destroyed environments. In many cases the polluters don’t pay for these things. But those businesses who don’t have powerful lobbyists don’t get the same special concessions. So the US taxpayer subsidises polluters. If the free market system truly applied these companies would have to pay for the negative outcomes of their activities, just as others do, and everyone would be subject to the same rules.
Kennedy, a lifelong Democrat, is an admirer of Barack Obama, and believes Obama is working hard to reverse the eight years of environmental destruction wrought by the Bush regime. He has no time for ideologues on the right who preach the virtues of the free market. Kennedy believes in the free market too, but for him it is a tool, not a religion. He compared the free market to a hammer: a hammer is a useful tool, but you you'd be mad to worship it.
He spoke in detail about the benefits of renewable energy sources: particularly wind and solar power. The national grid in the US is a mess, and it is currently difficult for a new company to plug a renewable energy source into it. But the momentum for renewable energy is growing. He compared the costs of building a huge solar farm in the desert with the costs of building a coal plant. Both cost about the same to build, but once you have built the solar plant you have virtually free power. Once you’ve built a coal plant your costs have only begun – you still have to get the coal out of the ground.
Kennedy appears optimistic about the prospects of renewable energy sources. He believes they are cheaper and more efficient, and less damaging to the environment. He says Obama is currently moving to change the rules so that polluters are no longer being subsidised. The deregulation of the telecommunications sector is a good example of what can happen when everyone in a market is under the same rules. In the US and other countries (though perhaps not so much in New Zealand) costs to consumers have plummeted, and companies have invested hugely in new technologies.
Kennedy believes the energy sector in the US could be transformed in just a few years for about the same amount of money as has been spent on the Iraq War.
The rest of the night
The event was a fundraiser for a charity set up by former PM Mike Moore, School Aid. The night included a charity auction that raised tens of thousands of dollars, thanks to some obscenely wealthy people being present and throwing money about like we were back in the '80s.
One of the items up for auction was a lunch at Great Mercury Island with Mike Moore, Michael Fay and Robert Kennedy Jnr. Had I been obscenely wealthy and had a spare $8000 lying about I might have been tempted to bid, if only to allow myself the opportunity to get tipsy and commence a tedious monologue about the crimes and misdemeanours of two of my three lunch companions. It might have been fun, although I might have ended up having to swim home.
And I must say the sight of that great robber-baron Fay on stage telling us we should all dig into our wallets, just about drove me to commit a heinous act. It was also a surprise to learn Fay has a place on Great Mercury Island. I always assumed he lived inside a volcano.
I think it was during the Fay auction that one of the attendees got up and grabbed the microphone, and proceeded to abuse the audience for being so stingy - using some rather foul language in doing so. I am told the person may have been a prominent Auckland restaurateur who runs a well-known establishment in the Viaduct. He clearly thinks $8000 is small change. Next time I hear how badly restaurants in the Viaduct have done during the downturn I may feel less sympathy. The gentleman managed to make a complete fool of himself.
Naturally we were required to listen to Mike Moore, though I am pleased to report I don't remember a single thing he said.
The event was packed, with several hundred attendees. Many of the good, the great and not so great were there, including notable politicians (past and present), TV celebrities and business leaders. I thought Don Brash was brave to show his face in public, after the roasting he'd recently received in most circles. And North Shore mayor Andrew Williams was at the table next to mine, but he didn't appear to be furiously texting. Intriguingly, Williams and Len Brown were in the outside lobby for some time deep in discussions. Plotting?
Anyway, it was a late night, and I've got another one tonight - my firm's Christmas party. No dancing on tables allowed. I suppose next they’ll be banning snorting cocaine from the thighs of strippers. Bah humbug!