Spin doctors taking the reins
According to legend, the ‘‘ communications’’ staff who pump out press releases from ministerial and departmental offices around Wellington now vastly outnumber the journalists who are reporting on their work.
For a good example of the dark art of political spin, take last week’s press release issued jointly by ministers Nathan Guy and Jo Goodhew in response to the 2015 KPMG Agribusiness Agenda.
This annual report surveys more than 150 leaders in the farming sector and is widely regarded as a valuable snapshot of primary industry views. If you believed the ministerial press statement, this year’s KPMG survey was a ringing endorsement of government policies.
The press release begins: ‘‘Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy and Food Safety Minister Jo Goodhew have welcomed the annual KPMG Agribusiness Agenda, which shows strong industry support for the government priorities of strengthening bio-security and adding value to exports.’’
In similar vein: ‘‘It’s pleasing to see the continued focus on the importance of adding value to our exports . . . It’s encouraging to again see that industry and the Government are on the same page regarding the major challenges and opportunities ahead of us.’’
Probably, this spin would have come as a surprise to KPMG, and to the people they surveyed.
To all beyond the Beltway, this year’s Agribusiness Agenda issued a stinging critique of New Zealand’s chronic failure to add value to our primary exports. That’s why Radio New Zealand, for example, used the headline ‘‘Little progress on added value to primary exports’’ for its coverage, which cited a call for change by Ian Proudfoot, KPMG’s head of global agribusiness.
Very little was being done to add value within a culture fixated on dairy milk powder, Proudfoot claimed, in the face of market signals that indicate a growing global demand exists for other products – such as liquids – that New Zealand could well be at risk of missing out on.
Despite KPMG’s claim that a different, long-term perspective is required for producers to make the necessary adjustments, this call for change went unmentioned in the ministerial press statement, which portrayed the KPMG survey as an affirmation of current government policy settings. True, the KPMG survey expressed support for government initiatives in bio- security and rural broadband. But it also voiced the deep concerns felt by many of its respondents about the emerging shape and ownership of New Zealand’s dairy industry, now that well-capitalised foreign companies are entering the sector with the ability to build processing plants, and offer good prices to farmers.
‘‘There is a concern,’’ Proudfoot said, ‘‘as to how much milk will be controlled by New Zealand-owned entities in future . . .’’
Again, no sign of that concern being acknowledged, let alone acted on, by Guy and Goodhew.
This example is by no means the worst Beltway instance of the triumph of spin over substance. Routinely, successive governments have used taxpayer-funded communications to further their political advantage, rather than to promote informed debate.
Any ‘‘public interest’’ objective has taken a back seat, as ministerial and departmental communications have become more and more politicised.
In the case of the Agribusiness Agenda, one can only hope the Government will be engaging in other ways with the farming sector, and with the concerns it has expressed to KPMG.