Gordon Campbell on the plight of dairy, anti-Chinese sentiments and Pluto
Where now for dairy farmers? On RNZ this morning, Economic Development Minister Stephen Joyce was portraying the carnage of plunging global dairy
prices, declining Fonterra payouts and bank foreclosures as merely a product of the normal business cycle and hey –
eventually - things will get back to normal sometime soon. Dream on. In a world awash with milk and milk producers there
is no reason to expect the glory days of a few years ago will return soon, if ever. The white gold rush seems to be
With similarly ill founded optimism, the likes of Andrew Huggard, the dairy sector chief at Federated Farmers, was publicly expressing hope this morning
that the Trans Pacific Partnership trade talks will deliver relief to dairy farmers. Again, forget it.
Within the TPP talks, New Zealand may have been digging in and demanding that the TPP talks must deliver this country
better access for our dairy products to Asian farm markets – and not only to benefit our dairy traders, but to justify
the costly trade-offs we will be making on drug patents, copyright terms etc etc. Yet according to the Japanese Economic
Minister this week, New Zealand and Canada should simply be fenced off from the final deal if they continue to cause
trouble! Here’s how the Japanese media were reporting on the TPP a couple of days ago
Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Akira Amari did not name the countries he thinks could be excluded from a
Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, but Canada and New Zealand are said to be lagging behind in their negotiations with
other members. “If there are countries that are…not willing to reach an agreement at the Hawaii meeting, we can’t afford
to let the TPP go adrift for their sake,” Amari told a press conference. “It is an option for those countries to join
(the TPP) later,” Amari said.
Negotiation sources said Canada remains reluctant to open up its poultry and dairy markets to foreign competition under
the free trade initiative that would cover around 40 percent of global gross domestic product, while New Zealand has
called for further liberalization of dairy products.
So….we’re going to be will be getting a lot that we don’t want, from the TPP, and without compensation on dairy trade.
Clearly, Japan isn’t in any mood to budge. Even though New Zealand was a foundation member of this deal, the Japanese
want us excluded from the final arrangements if we continue to hold out for proper treatment. This would be amusing if
it wasn’t humiliating, and outrageous.
China and Auckland housing
The furore over China’s alleged role in Auckland house prices rolls on. Statistically, people of Chinese ethnic origin comprise 9 % of the Auckland
population. According to Labour via a less than scientifically rigorous survey that it accessed, ethnic Chinese
accounted for some 40% of the Auckland house sales at one real estate agency during a three month period to April. According to this story
, people of ethnic Chinese origin accounted for 100 % of the buyers at a recent sale of 23 sections in the city.
Does anyone really think the main cause of high house prices in Auckland is…China ? How about decades of neglect by
successive governments in building a sufficient number of affordable houses? So far, there’s been a striking reluctance
among all concerned to link the alleged role of Chinese buyers to the policies on foreign investment that both Labour
and National have supported, and which have enabled foreigners from all over the world – not just Chinese – to (a) buy
their way into citizenship here, and thereby gain entry into (b) our housing market.
Elsewhere in the world, there is evidence that wealthy Chinese are buying real estate abroad. New Zealand, we have been
virtually begging them to do so. In May 2014 this column cited
a South China Morning Post story that still seems relevant. Under the headline “The next Canada? Rich mainland Chinese push New Zealand migration
to 11-year high” the SCMP explained that New Zealand had been busily wooing wealthy Chinese ever since Canada - formerly
a top destination - restricted its immigrant visa scheme, after it became overloaded by mainland Chinese seeking citizenship
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key recently said he wanted mainland and Hong Kong investors to spend money not on land,
but on fixed assets, manufacturing or real estate projects like hotels. New Zealand’s “Investor Plus” policy allows
those who invest NZ$10 million (HK$53.1 million) over a three-year period to gain residency. Applicants are not required
to have English- language skills or business experience. A less expensive option, the “Investor” category, allows
residency for those who invest NZ$1.5 million over four years, but who must also speak English….. On the contrary,
Canada had announced an immediate end to [its] immigrant investor program….The [Canadian ] government said many of the
people who use the program have only “tenuous” ties to Canada, and even some Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver – where many
mainland and Hong Kong investors live – have the impression that some of the investor immigrants buy houses and cars and
bring their families over, then return to China and Asia to do most of their business.
In the US, the popular online magazine Slate had also noted the SCMP/Canada/New Zealand story…. It commented unfavourably
on New Zealand’s pay-for-residency scheme in a story headlined “Why Thousands of Chinese Are Buying Residency in New
Zealand…” That’s the point. Once you’ve chosen to sell the right to New Zealand citizenship in this very public fashion
- and having seen successive National and Labour governments express support for schemes that woo Chinese and other
foreign investors - isn’t it hypocritical for Labour to then turn around and try to scapegoat Chinese investors for
buying real estate here, either to live in or as an investment?
Beyond the racial profiling involved, the China housing story has been a lesson in ethics. For any journalist or politician entrusted with secret
information there’s a duty of care (a) to the person handing over the info and (b) to the story, since how the
information is handled and presented will determine whether the risks were worth it. Protecting the source has to be the
over-riding concern. Often, sources will be so outraged/concerned about the information in their hands they simply won’t
understand the risks they’re running. They need to be warned – and protected – from the impact that the worst case
scenario could have on their lives. Basically, news stories come and go: even the most explosive revelations will be
lucky to stay in the news frame for a week. Yet for the source, the consequences can be lifelong. They may lose their
jobs, and careers. Hardly any news story is worth that price. Edward Snowden is the exception, not the rule.
Reportedly, Labour’s source for its data (on how many house purchases in Auckland co-relate with a Chinese sounding
surname) has now lost his job
Did Labour really do all it could have done to blur the information, and hide the discovery trail? Not in this case.
Almost instantly, Barfoot and Thompson seem to have known it was their data that had been accessed, and it readily
identified - and then fired - the person responsible.
Did the way the story was presented justify the risk to the source? That depends on what was Labour’s real intention.
Was it (a) trying to highlight the government’s inaction over how foreign buyers are pushing up house prices in
Auckland, by using Chinese sounding surnames as the only rough indicator it could find or (b) was it consciously
pandering to the same middle class and working class voters who welcome anti-Asian sentiments from Winston Peters? Don
Brash, as many people have already pointed out, got a sudden boost in the polls after his Orewa speech indulged in
Could Labour have done this differently? If it had been striving in all honesty to gauge the impact of foreign buyers
per se, it could have – apparently - paid for the relevant information
Even if it didn’t know that these other, better channels existed – which is unlikely - you’d think Labour would have
been more apologetic about fingering the Chinese as being only the visible part of a larger problem. Ultimately,
surnames that look Chinese tell us nothing about whether the people concerned were (a) foreign-based, (b) recently
naturalised, or (c) second or third generation New Zealanders of Chinese origin. Nor does this guesswork tell us
anything about the ratio of Asian to European foreign buyers of Auckland’s housing stock. If Labour had pre-empted those
counter-attacks by using a less inflammatory way of presenting the data, it would have it made harder for the racial
profiling by Labour to have become the story.
Time and again last year, Labour tacticians looked as if they hadn’t anticipated the likely counter attacks, and hadn’t
devised a strategy to fend them off. On this story, it has looked like more of the same. Still, if the intention all
along had been to pander to New Zealand First’s rabidly anti-Chinese constituency, then Labour will probably be counting
all the reaction to date as an upside.
One final thing….the fate of the former Barfoot & Thompson employee - losing his job and a reputation built up over 25 years – should make any potential source think
twice about co-operating with Labour in future. Maybe the person concerned didn’t care. Maybe Labour didn’t care,
either. Contrast this with the modus operandi of another person – Nicky Hager - who makes regular and extensive use of
secret information, from very vulnerable sources. Over the course of 20 years or more, I doubt whether any of Hager’s sources have been identified, let alone sanctioned. That’s why people still reveal things to him. They know
he will (a) protect them and (b) present the story in an honourable and effective way. Hard to feel the same about
Labour’s handling of this housing story.
Hasta la vista, Pluto
Pluto has been the good news story of the week, as an old school triumph of human ingenuity. As predicted three years ago in the May 2012 edition of Werewolf
the New Horizons fly-by of the “dwarf planet” Pluto has re-kindled the debate over Pluto’s candidacy for full planetary
status within our solar system. Infamously, Pluto got relegated to “dwarf planet” status in 2006 at an astronomical
gathering in Prague in which only 5 % of the astronomers eligible to vote supported the motion. BTW, on this “dwarf
planet” thing - as New Horizon lead scientist Allan Stern once pointed out, a dwarf person is still a person, and a
daschshund is still a dog. Size is, or should be, irrelevant. Evidently, Mercury is the going size at which small
planets cease being called dwarfs – although put up next to Jupiter, even Earth looks like a runt.
The Pluto debacle is an interesting example of how scientific labeling can say next to nothing about the thing being
labeled, and everything about the scientists doing the labeling. At that fateful meeting in 2006, the initial problem
wasn’t Pluto so much as Ceres, that 19th interloper from the asteroid belt that had been counted a planet on its
discovery in 1801, and then demoted once it was gradually found there were lots and lots more asteroids. The problem
being, the original definition put before the Prague gathering of the International Astronomical Union in 2006 had
defined a planet as "a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid-body forces so
that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star
nor a satellite of a planet".
Uh oh. Someone belatedly realised this definition would let Ceres back into the club. Hastily, an amended definition was
concocted with the added rider that a planet must have "cleared the neighborhood
around its orbit". Primarily, this was meant to knock out Ceres, which has many asteroid neighbours along its orbital
path. Unfortunately, Pluto became collateral damage of this new definition. Those in Prague who voted for its dismissal
seem to have been less animated by Pluto’s true nature, than by the desire to get this cobbled together definition onto
the books, and move on.
In vain, Pluto’s defenders – including Allan Stern, - have subsequently argued that almost half of the classic planetary
club haven’t “cleared the neighbourhood” along their orbital paths either, including Earth and Jupiter. Reversing course
however, would not only have let back in Ceres, and possibly a few other asteroids, such as Juno, Pallas and Vesta - all
of which had briefly enjoyed full planetary status for half of the 19th century. Besides, a more lenient, more
consistent definition would have also make it hard to find a reason to exclude a few of Pluto’s near neighbours in the
Kuiper Belt, such as Eris, Haumea and Makemake. Pluto has turned out to be the casualty of a poor definition by
scientists unable to cope with the logical consequences of a better one. It seems that we just can’t handle Pluto’s
truth! For now, science is stuck with a ludicrous, entirely ad hoc situation : whereby a small planet like Pluto can
have five moons and not be a planet, while a small planet like Mercury can have none, and still be counted as one.
Here’s a love song to Pluto, as sung to it by its biggest moon and long-time companion, Charon: