Political assurances meaningless
Famously, the artist Andy Warhol once said that all of us would eventually be famous, but only for 15 minutes.
In an age of instant news, the same speed of churn seems to be occurring with political statements – whereby ministers can be offering one explanation in the morning but something close to its exact opposite by nightfall.
Last week, for instance, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy initially strongly disputed claims of shonky practices and poor oversight of swamp kauri log exports.
According to conservationists, these logs are being extracted from Northland swamps in ways that are causing considerable damage and pollution to the wetlands involved, and are being exported illegally as finished logs under the guise of carvings.
Initially, Guy strongly disagreed.
‘‘They are finished products,’’ he said. ‘‘I have seen some fantasticlooking swamp kauri logs being carved and they’re going to be an amazing feature for our country and the international country they’re destined for. So we manage it very, very closely.’’
Amid a storm of criticism that routinely, only token ‘‘carving’’ or scribbling on the logs was taking place, Guy did an abrupt about turn. Forget that ‘‘ very, very’’ close monitoring by his department.
‘‘ Yesterday,’’ Guy said, ‘‘ I requested further advice from [the Ministry of Primary Industry] on improvements that can be made in managing the milling and exporting of swamp kauri.’’
Within 24 hours Guy was in the gun again.
This time, it was over his explanation as to why 800 lambs had died during a controversial plan to spend $1.5 million of taxpayer funds on the export of 900 pregnant ewes to the private farm of a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman.
The farm was meant to serve as a showcase for our expertise in primary exports and to placate the Saudi businessman, who had become so annoyed when New Zealand cancelled our live sheep trade he then conveyed his displeasure to his fellow Saudis, who were negotiating a free trade deal with New Zealand. Dead lambs? No big deal. ‘‘From time to time, livestock die,’’ Guy claimed.
When pressed as to why so many had died if the shelter provided was adequate, Guy blamed the combined effects of wind and sand.
‘‘Because there is,’’ he said, lot of sand in the desert.’’
Within hours, the export company involved had debunked the sandstorm theory.
The sheep, it claimed, died of a range of illnesses after heavy rain.
To be fair, Guy had included a disclaimer: ‘‘But I don’t have all the information.’’
Clearly not, Radio New Zealand reporter Chris Bramwell observed sardonically, before citing the
‘‘a ‘‘range of illnesses’’ explanation from the exporter.
Given the death toll, the Saudi farm’s ongoing value as a showcase for this country’s farming expertise seems dubious.
By week’s end, Trade and Enterprise was claiming that the responsibility for all operational matters and any further comment on the farm’s outputs now rested entirely with the Saudis.
Not a good week then for the process of open government.
Evidently, the public can’t rely on any initially defiant and defensive statements by ministers, whose explanations can be as changeable as the political winds.
In similar vein, government departments can claim to have no operational responsibility for schemes that are funded by them, with taxpayer money.