Gordon Campbell on asking the banks to be nicer to farmers

ardern-oconnor-peters-imageAt the urging of New Zealand First, the government announced yesterday that it will be creating a compulsory mediation service between debt-laden farmers and their banks, with a view to either throwing those indebted farmers a lifeline, or arranging a soft exit for them from the farming business. Few would begrudge the idea that banks should be made to act more humanely – given the obscene profits that the Aussie banks are extracting annually from New Zealand, they can surely afford to cut some slack. Yet the interesting background statistic is that farm debt in New Zealand has exploded by 270% in the last 20 years, to around $63 billion.

How come? Well, the main explanation for that spectacular increase is that the money has been borrowed to buy dairy farms and/or to finance the conversion of farms to dairying. In other words, it has been driven by people incurring the financial risks involved in cashing in on the ‘white gold’ bonanza that has ended up seriously polluting our rivers and lakes, as well as affecting the quality of groundwater and private bores. Recently, the dairy-generated level of nitrates pollution of our drinking water has been linked (via a long term Danish study) to New Zealand’s comparatively high rates of colorectal cancer.

Despite calls for urgent action by a range of environmental groups, academics and consumer groups, the Ministry of Health is not treating the potential health risks posed by nitrates in our drinking water as a matter of any urgency:

A third of water samples monitored by the Christchurch City Council over the last decade exceeded the level at which the Danish study warned there could be a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

In April, the Christchurch West Melton water management zone committee (CWMZ) urged the Ministry of Health to examine the relationship between nitrate levels and the cancer as a priority, saying it is “critical” to understand the risks it can pose. Ministry deputy director-general Deborah Woodley said although a “comprehensive review of standards” is under way, it is unlikely to recommend a change to the maximum acceptable level (MAV) of nitrates in drinking water.

In the meantime, the MoH is dismissing the Danish study as an isolated result, while claiming that other potentially contributing factors (obesity, smoking etc) were not adequately assessed by the Danish researchers. Until the World Health Organisation (WHO) says otherwise, the MoH concluded, it feels no pressing cause for alarm. However, back in 2015, a wide-ranging WHO study linked high nitrates in processed red meat to colorectal cancers.

Conclusions were primarily based on the evidence for colorectal cancer. Data also showed positive associations between processed meat consumption and stomach cancer, and between red meat consumption and pancreatic and prostate cancer. Meat processing such as curing (e.g. by adding nitrates or nitrites) or smoking can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing (carcinogenic) chemicals such as N-nitroso-compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)….

If the WHO linked nitrates in processed meat to cancers and the Danish study did likewise for the nitrates present in drinking water, then you might think that our health authorities should be treating the Danish study as further corroboration of the WHO findings, and not as a peculiar outlier. As things stand, the coalition government is treating the plight of farmers (who have landed themselves in debt while chasing the personal enrichment on offer from the dairy boom) as a higher priority than the health and environmental problems that are being generated by excessive dairying.

Evidently, some farmers cannot afford to service the costs of their loans – but arguably, the country cannot afford the health and environmental risks associated with what’s been bank-rolled so avidly across rural New Zealand, over the past 20 years.

As an aside, it has been interesting to hear the special pleading for farmers. Most farmers, Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew Hoggard told RNZ this morning, enjoy a good working relationship with their banks. Yet of late, Hoggard added, the banks have been getting “tougher” with sharemilkers in particular, and that trend has bothered him. Some sharemilkers, it seems, are “quite new at the whole business thing”. In Hoggard’s heart-tugging view: “They’re young people just getting ahead, they’re enthusiastic, they’re eager, they’re wanting to do stuff, they possibly don’t make the greatest decisions at times… I just think in the bank situation [the banks] should be making sure that these people don’t get in over their heads.”

Hmm… so why shouldn’t the banks be also made to extend similar compassion to people working three cleaning jobs in the cities, equally ‘in order to get ahead’. When such people ‘get in over their heads’ with their rent and power bills, why shouldn’t they – like those over-eager sharemilkers – also be given a six month reprieve and a mediation service to prevent them from turfed out of their homes?

Quiz time, and war time

For this morning’s challenge, step right up and guess the name of the Middle East country that was among the first nation to denounce the Islamic State caliphate, fought against it at great economic cost and saw thousands of its own troops killed in the process? This same country has been the main regional enemy of the Sunni extremist ideology that inspired al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban, and it was the prime enemy of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Finally, this same country has taken in and given shelter to about 2.5 million refugees from the fighting in Afghanistan, thereby saving Europe from having to cope with a further mass influx of refugees.

Yep, you’re right. I’m talking about Iran. In a saner world, Iran would be one of the West’s strongest allies in the region. Iran has vast amounts of oil, and could easily rescue the West from its current energy dependency on the homicidal regime that rules Saudi Arabia.

Instead, and while being egged on by Saudi Arabia, the US appears intent on going to war with Iran. John Bolton, the US national security adviser, has been publicly advocating regime change by force in Iran for the past 15 years. The latest excuse for that war has been the damage done to two tankers in the Gulf of Oman. A video has been circulated showing what the US claims to be Iranian personnel removing a mine from one of the ships. A sure sign of Iranian guilt, says the White House.

Really? According to Reuters, the crew on one of the damaged ships claimed the damage was done by a “flying projectile” and not by a mine, or by a torpedo. If one of those ships had a mine attached (the video is unclear) then the Iranian action to remove it could equally be seen as preventing an incident that – whether it had been orchestrated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, or carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen – would be blamed on Iran, regardless.

Perhaps significantly, the tanker attacks occurred just as Japanese premier Shinzo Abe was visiting Teheran to try and broker a peace deal between the US and Iran. Not accidentally perhaps, the first attack was on a vessel called the Front Altair carrying 75,000 tones of naptha loaded in Abu Dhabi and bound for Japan, while the second was on a Japanese-owned vessel called the Kokuku Courageous, loaded in Saudi Arabia. Who-ever sabotaged the tankers seems to have been intent on sabotaging Japan’s efforts at peaceful diplomacy. As Bloomberg News put it late last week:

A day earlier, Iran freed a U.S. resident imprisoned on espionage charges. This [attack] would seem very clumsy timing from a country seeing the first tangible signs of any easing of the crippling sanctions imposed by the Americans. But it is absolutely understandable if you’re someone whose ultimate goal is to derail any easing of tensions between the two nations, and to effect regime change in Tehran. Whoever is behind the attacks is no friend of Iran.

Exactly. It would be par for the course though, for the Saudis.

Footnote One: Those ‘crippling’ US sanctions opn Iran are being imposed, US President Donald Trump says, in order to force Teheran back to the negotiating table. Even by Trump’s normal standards of deceit, that’s an incredible claim. Already, the Trump administration has shown Teheran what a waste of time this would be, given that the US walked away from its previous commitments – even while Iran kept its side of the nuclear deal that it jointly signed in 2015 with Europe, and with the Americans.

Reportedly, Iran is now pursuing the enrichment of nuclear fuel that it abandoned under that 2015 deal ripped up by Trump. It has been given absolutely no reason to respect the terms of a deal the Americans have not honoured. Simultaneously, Iran is urging Europe to do more to counteract the damage being done to its standard of living by the sweeping (and illegal) US sanctions which – incidentally – New Zealand is tacitly observing, despite our historical interest in nuclear non-proliferation. Rather than antagonise Trump, we’ve also quietly buried our $200 million (and growing) annual farm trade with Iran.

Footnote Two: Saudi Arabia and the Emirates may be the most credible suspects behind the selective sabotaging of ships passing through the Straits of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman – given their keen interest in orchestrating a US military attack on Iran. There is one other potential local culprit: the Houthi rebels of Yemen, who have ample reason to strike back at the regional shipping trade, given the human rights atrocities that the Saudis and Emirates have been committing inside Yemen. As Robert Fisk commented sarcastically in his column in the Independent on the weekend:

When US munitions – dropped by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates – are blowing up Houthi rebels, schools, hospitals, wedding parties, etc, in Yemen – why should it be surprising if the Houthis use Iranian munitions to try to blow up Saudi airports? With a little more training, the Houthis might even reach the technical prowess of their Saudi and Emirati enemies by also firing rockets at schools, hospitals and wedding parties, etc, in Saudi Arabia.

Lazily, the civil war in Yemen tends to be reported as a ‘proxy’ war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Such reportage ignores the genuine internal divisions within Yemen, and it blurs the vast imbalance between the scale of the US/Saudi/Emirates military intervention in Yemen, and the minimal support that Iran has given to the Houthis. The American arming of the Saudis, as the regional analyst Juan Cole has pointed out, is running at a level roughly 10,000 times what Iran has been offering to the Houthis.

Moreover… this alleged proxy war blithely assumes the Houthis to be puppets of Teheran. As Cole adds, the Houthis may be Shia, but they are from a Zaydi sect that is significantly different to the form of Shi’ism practiced in Iran. In particular, Zaydis do not recognise the inherent authority of imams, which puts them at odds with the ayatollahs who rule Iran. For this reason alone, there is no way the Houthis would serve as puppets of the Iranians. In reality, the Houthis have their own significant beef with the ghastly humanitarian crimes that are being committed in Yemen by the Saudis and the UAE, with American munitions – and their revenge actions for the carnage that’s occurring in their country should not be attributed to the Iranians, in order to justify yet another war in the Middle East.

Songs for Seymour

In their time of need, the young fogies in the Act Party have chosen to resurrect the old US flat tax idea of the 1990s, as once promoted by forgotten US political figures like Steve Forbes and Newt Gingrich. ‘Nuff said. (Act has never met a 30 year old idea from the supply side fringe that it didn’t like.) Reportedly, Act is also re-branding itself as the “freedom” party. As yet though, there’s been no indication whether this rebranding exercise will include a theme song for Election 2020. So herewith, some suggestions…

Freedom, freedom. Act’s relaunch comes right on (right on!) the 50th anniversary of when Richie Havens first sang “Freedom” to those crowds at Woodstock. It would be so great to hear Act leader David Seymour getting his Havens on, come karaoke night: “Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone, yeah… freee-dom! Freeeee-dom!” The crowds would, I suspect, go wild.

Ultimately though, there’s really only one song for the Act Party to adopt, before it exits right. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose… and here’s Kris Kristofferson, Lady Antebellum and a few other suspects doing a fine live version, from only about four years ago…