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.

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