How the government’s media imagery diverges from reality

The media loves a little Westie battler, but is not quite so keen on people who use privilege to get what they want. Last week Paula Bennett seemed to be both, at once. One moment her role in breaking up a brawl was all over the media as an example of the gritty style of our new welfare Minister from West Auckland – and the next thing Prime Minister John Key was telling us that Bennett’s efforts as an opposition MP to convince the Parole Board to release her daughter’s violent boyfriend on bail, were entirely a private matter.

Hello ? As even the NZ Herald pointed out in an editorial, the government can’t have it both ways. “ If Key’s Cabinet ministers do not know that being open with the public is a constitutional duty rather than a PR opportunity, now is a good time for them to learn.”

Normally, the media can be counted on as a readily available megaphone for the personal values that politicians want to project. George Bush for instance bought his fabled ranch in Crawford, Texas in 1999, on the eve of his presidential campaign, and it served as a useful prop in his election battle against Al Gore. For the eight years of the Bush presidency, Bush would often be depicted in his jeans ‘clearing’ the mesquite bush down on the Crawford ranch. As political analyst Ed Kilgore says on his Democratic Strategist site :

Didn’t the hard-working, rural values embodied in that “ranch” play a critical part in shaping Bush’s character? That’s certainly what the video shown at the 2000 Republican convention said. Weren’t all those afternoons Bush spent “clearing brush” at the “ranch” the dramatic visible evidence of his continuing authenticity and spiritual bond with the “real” America even while in office? That’s certainly the spin Bush’s press people trotted out again and again during the course of his presidency. Remember all those press events with photographers dutifully snapping the pictures of Bush wiping his forehead with his work gloves to underscore his continuing ties to the rich Texas land and to all sons of toil?

… This is total bullshit. This so-called “ranch” was nothing but a stage-set designed for photo-ops. It [was] no more authentic than the phony villages and collective farms to which the Soviets used to take Western observers, to show them the happy, satisfied Soviet workers….

Its main purpose done, the Crawford ranch is now being swapped by the Bushes for a retirement mansion in Dallas. As Kilgore says, the Bush ranch only ever had 4 or 5 lonely looking cows around, far too few to have any practical or commercial function. ‘Without any real cattle ranching or agriculture actually being practiced, there was really no reason to ever clear away any brush. Some independent journalists even had the temerity to note that the bales of straw lying around so authentically (presumably to feed the non-existent herds of cattle) were artfully placed to conceal the condensers for the central air conditioning system.”

Right now, the realities of rural life pose a similarly interesting test of the Key government’s imagery of commitment to life on the farm. Apparently, the Southland Times – and thanks to Frogblog for the link – is reporting that the town of Gore is running out of water.

Why ? Not because of the rainfall – which has been reasonably constant. No, it is because dairy conversion is draining the main aquifers that serve the town.

The problem was caused by a lack of water in the aquifers that fed the bores at Coopers Well and Jacobstown, “[Gore District Council utilities manager Ross Haslemore] said.

The drawoff of water by dairy farms upriver of the bores could be impacting on the Mataura River’s flow level, which would in turn affect the bores, he said.

What, one wonders, does local farmer Bill English, for so long the nearby MP for rural Wallace, think about this? Is he in favour of Big Dairy running dry the water resources of rural and provincial New Zealand ? Big Dairy is also contaminating wetland areas like the Waituna Wetland which, as Environment Southland points out on its website, was the world’s first wetland recognised by the international Ramsar Convention in 1971. It too, is now being put at risk by Big Dairy :

For nearly a century, the Southland community has been delighting in the wetlands as a spot for fishing, whitebaiting, waterfowl hunting and afternoon outings.

Today this world-famous site is being threatened by an influx of cattle effluent. Faecal matter permeating the lagoon’s brackish water keeps native plants from thriving, which in turn deprives the wetland’s wildlife, ducks, swans, and fish of a critical food source. The decrease in native plant life moreover encourages the growth of algae, a process that ultimately decimates the integrity of the wetland.

“If the water quality continues degrading, then the whole Waituna Lagoon could be lost,” said Gary Morgan, Land Sustainability Officer at Environment Southland.

These impacts are not being caused by the scale of farming that we have known in the past. As Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman points out on Frogblog :

These are not family farms, these are simply outdoor factories for making money by producing milk protein, which is a perfectly fine and valid thing to do, but they should be regulated as such. And given what we know about the impact of industrial dairy, surely we need a moratorium on expansion in at risk catchments until we have a proper system in place to manage the impact?

Welcome to the 21st century world of political imagery. Is the National Party more accurately seen as the friend of the family farm and of traditional rural values – or is it the political crony of Corporate Agribusiness ? Some evidence points towards the latter. In December for instance, RNZ reported that Agriculture Minister David Carter had deliberately excluded environmental groups from a conference about water use and allocation in the Canterbury and Otago regions, to which only top government Ministers and industry, farming and irrigation scheme representatives were invited :

Environmental groups did not get a chance to air their views at a weekend forum for Canterbury and Otago water users. Agriculture Minister David Carter, who arranged the event, says they were deliberately left out – but their views won’t be ignored. Some 120 farmers and industry and irrigation scheme representatives from Canterbury and Otago attended the water infrastructure forum on Saturday. Infrastructure and Finance minister Bill English, and Economic Development minister Gerry Brownlee also attended.

Mr Carter says 28 water schemes from North Canterbury to South Otago are in various stages of development, and a more co-ordinated approach to water supply is needed. He says the forum needed to see what was possible for water supply, and environmental groups were not invited. Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson says the decision not to invite environmental groups was loaded with “agricultural arrogance”.

A further test of the gap between image and reality will come this week when the government releases its plans to help small and medium scale business survive the global economic crisis. This could well be a very awkward exercise. Beyond its own natural ideological closeness to the captains of industry – and not to the small players – the Key administration has inherited government purchasing procedures that also favour large operators over small business providers. As TV3 reported in December, the Education Ministry recently instituted a new tender process that favours large operators such as Ritchies and Go Bus over local, smaller firms :

The ministry completed a tender process in October, with two big bus companies, Ritchies and Go Bus, the main winners.

The ministry used a new assessment regime, which smaller operators criticised as unfair and containing criteria that favoured larger companies.

An investigation by TV3 also revealed that Ritchies had provided registration numbers, supposedly for its bus fleet, in its application that included a Mini, a Mitsubishi Galant and a written-off vehicle all owned by other people.

The new system kicks in this month, just as the government releases its rescue plans for small and medium scale business.

As Kilgore says, we need to be skeptical. Fabricated biographies and staged events that are designed to portray politicians as ‘ real folks’ are an increasingly important part of the process of political manipulation. So expect a lot of rhetoric about heartland values and the virtues of the corner store, even as the shutters go up and the lights go out.