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 over.

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 race-baiting politics.

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.

Plutonic love

Here’s a love song to Pluto, as sung to it by its biggest moon and long-time companion, Charon:

And here’s The Onion’s take on what we’ve all learned from the Pluto fly-by this week.

Content Sourced from scoop.co.nz
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