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.

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