Matt King says his controversial Facebook post has sparked much-needed discussion around climate change, but won't take the conversation further by accepting a councillor's offer of a public debate.
The Northland MP copped heavy criticism over the weekend for a social media post that claimed climate change "is natural" and accused the Government of unfairly targeting farmers in efforts to lower carbon emissions.
Northland regional councillor Mike Finlayson says an elected official sharing social media messages that go against "90-something percent of climate science" is irresponsible.
"If you're a member of the public, sure, but he represents thousands of people," he told Newshub. "It falls short of the standard for local government."
Finlayson has served on the Northland Regional Council for three years, and says climate change is playing an increasing role in decision-making.
He was "shocked and disappointed" to read King's Facebook post, which was published to his official page on Saturday.
"He's battling for farmers, I say go for it, but the rant was plagiarised from an alt-right, petrochemical industry-funded propaganda unit."
The post was taken word-for-word from the website for right-leaning think tank NZ Centre for Political Research (NZCPR), which itself was a transcript of a video posted by right-wing lobby group Free Market America. The transcript swaps out the word 'America' for 'New Zealand'.
King originally introduced the screed as "words of wisdom taken from NZCPR website", but later edited the post to read "some words (not all) of wisdom".
Speaking to media in Parliament on Tuesday, he wouldn't say if he considers NZCPR, a right-leaning thinktank, a reputable source, but said he's read a "range" of material both for and against man-made climate change.
"You've got to listen to the range of arguments."
Finlayson says the time for arguing about whether human activity is contributing to climate change is past, and King is causing harm by "trying to sow seeds of doubt".
"He's undermining the momentum of us trying to get the public on board with this issue," he says. "It's dawned on me recently, the immensity of the challenge we're facing. It's the number one issue, but lots of people don't accept it's happening and they don't want to have to do anything about it."
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King told media his Facebook post has "got the conversation going around climate change," but Finlayson says social media can be an ugly place to conduct debates on important issues.
"Dangerous diatribes give power to these people in their echo chambers, they're just a few people making a lot of noise. They're good at propaganda but not very good at science."
He says it's particularly irresponsible because King represents Northland, a low-lying coastal region that is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. His constituents are mostly from a low socioeconomic class, the group likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change.
Up for debate?
Finlayson's challenge is simple: "Either withdraw the rubbish or front up." He wants King to face him in a public debate, to be held in either Kaitaia or Whangarei.
"I'm up for it. Give us 15 minutes each, then let the audience fire questions at us."
Finlayson is no stranger to publicity stunts: he made (and drank) a cup of tea using water from a stream in a 1080-drop area, and prompted a code of conduct review after writing a Northland Age column that said 1080 activists were engaging in "propaganda that would make [Joseph] Goebbels proud".
He says a climate change debate would draw much-needed attention to the issue, predicting it would be a "packed out" media sensation. Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai has offered to adjudicate if the event goes ahead, and Finlayson says he'll arrange everything - he just needs King to show up.
King hasn't replied to the invitation, and wouldn't give Newshub a response when asked if he's interested in debating Finlayson.
He told media on Tuesday he "absolutely" believes humans contribute to climate change, and says it was a "poor choice of words" if the post implied otherwise.
"I'm not a climate denier. We're coming up with our position as far as the Zero Carbon Bill is concerned, and I'm really concerned about an attack on farming and rural communities."
He claims the Bill imposes "unreachable targets" on the agricultural sector, and says New Zealand climate activists should set their sights on more heavily polluting countries.
"What we should do is go with the pack, we shouldn't be leading the pack. Why should we cripple our economy just to virtue signal?"
On Sunday King tweeted that he's a "climate inquirer" rather than a denier.
"I think everyone's an enquirer, aren't they?" he said on Tuesday when asked about the term. "We're all finding out what the story is."
His National Party colleagues were less enthused about embracing the identity of "climate enquirer", with Gerry Brownlee, Chris Penk and Nicky Wagner all denying they'd encountered the term before.
"Everyone in the National Party believes that climate change is real," Chris Bishop told media.
But King isn't the first member of the party to express doubt about the urgency of lowering emissions. Climate change spokesperson Todd Muller mocked the Green Party's motion to declare a climate emergency as "nothing but hot air", while Judith Collins was derisive about students walking out of school to demand political action on climate change.
"Their little protest is not going to help the world one bit," she said in March.
Finlayson is reluctant to say it's a problem with the party as a whole, but says the Nats have been "hesitant" to embrace the science on the issue.
"They're using climate change as a political football, and I don't like it. They just need to follow the science and leave politics out of it."
He says he wouldn't vote for someone who spreads anti-scientific messages, but acknowledges King is unlikely to face much blowback at the polls next year as Northland is a secure National seat.
He says King has "backpedalled" since publishing the post on Saturday (which is still up on his official Facebook page), and doubts he'll say yes to a debate, which is a shame.
"I know Matt and I like him as a person, I think he's a decent bloke. But he's put a foot wrong... If you make these kinds of statements, then you should be held accountable."