M. bovis and meth panic: When issues should be bigger than politics

by Bevan Rapson / 12 June, 2018

Farmers facing the M. bovis crisis will be compensated for animals slaughtered in an attempt at eradication. Photo / Getty Images

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We're all in this together...sometimes.

Exactly when does an issue become “bigger than politics”? National Party agriculture spokesman Nathan Guy was happy to rate the fight against cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis at that magnitude when he welcomed the government’s late-May agreement to attempt its eradication.

That Opposition endorsement completed the picture of consensus presented in the deal between the government and farming sector leaders, under which a projected $870 million will be spent on a phased eradication over 10 years.

The government will meet 68% of this cost, and industry groups Dairy NZ and Beef + Lamb New Zealand pick up the remainder. Farmers themselves are expected to suffer a further $16 million in lost production. The eradication attempt means slaughtering 126,000 dairy and beef cattle that carry the bacterium, in addition to the 26,000 animals already under a death sentence.

That’s a tough outcome for farmers who have to see their healthy animals destroyed, but they will at least be compensated. It probably wasn’t too hard a decision for Guy and his colleagues to get behind a deal that seems to give a pretty generous taxpayer contribution to fight a private-sector problem. With the industry groups on board, National’s rural support base would have been cool on any political grandstanding.

The united front and eye-watering sums involved in the response were a reminder of how important agriculture remains as a contributor to our national prosperity. This, after all, might be the only country in the world where dairy prices make national news bulletins.

And while the connections between rural and urban New Zealand might not be as strong as they once were, and environmental concerns have tarnished the image of farmers for some city dwellers, farming remains an intrinsic part of our country’s identity, as well as its economy. The laconic man or woman of the land in a daggy hat remains a treasured, if outdated, archetype.

Which is not to deny the parochialism and inter-sector antagonisms that have also always been part of our national discourse. “Townies” are often sceptical about farmers reportedly struggling in the face of droughts or low payouts (“Didn’t hear from them in the boom years!”); farmers will claim with some justification that they’re the ones keeping the country afloat.

The M. bovis saga can be spun to provide ammunition on either side of that divide. Farmers can complain about the Ministry of Primary Industries’ initial response and its poor communication. In a sector where autonomy and self-reliance are prized, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you,” are not in any case automatically reassuring words.

In town, some ask how much farmers have contributed to their own plight by failing to document stock movements, something that could have helped authorities track and tackle the disease. Others wonder if this is just another example of an industry having privatised its profits now seeking to socialise its losses.

The government was never going to stir that pot. It sensibly offered its compassionate face – and the money to go with it. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took great care to acknowledge the pain ahead for affected farmers and assure them support would be provided.

The cross-party unity involved could be compared to the bipartisan response to the 2011 Canterbury earthquake. That too was “bigger than politics”, of course, as was the impact of the global financial crisis of a few years before. Up against forces outside our control, a nation of fewer than five million people should never find it too difficult to present a united face.

Now, the onus is on the government and its officials to prove themselves up to the task, the “one shot” they have at eradication. Whether they finally achieve that result or not, their decision-making will have to be logical and transparent enough to give farmers confidence, and their communication vastly improved on what’s gone before. And it’s to be hoped Nathan Guy and National will help promote the kind of rigour that’s required, whether that involves maintaining the initial consensus or sacrificing it.

Meth contamination? What meth contamination?

Because we don’t have to look too far to find a glaring example of politicians and officials dropping the ball, with disastrous effects for ordinary New Zealanders. In the same week as the M. bovis announcement, the prime minister’s chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, debunked once and for all the myth of a widespread health risk from contamination from meth smoking in New Zealand houses.

Here, junk science was the culprit, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars being wasted on the unnecessary decontamination of state and private houses, and untold disruption for people evicted on the basis of spurious testing.

That the last government sat back and allowed such waste and heartbreak – despite the evidence piling up against the existence of an actual risk – is an indelible black mark on its record. “Good managers”? Not on this evidence.

Is it unduly cynical to wonder if one contributor to the inaction might have been that the “moral panic” behind the contamination scare was otherwise a vote winner for tough-on-crime National? Even as Gluckman delivered his definitive view, Housing Minister Phil Twyford still felt it necessary to preface a comment with the assurance that, “No one is underplaying the social damage caused by meth, but...” With what we know now, that’s woefully off-topic.

Another factor behind the failure to swiftly fix such an obvious public-policy cock-up was that most of us were unaffected. As with the leaky-homes scandal, the technicalities could seem complicated, and if you weren’t personally involved, it was easy to offer a sympathetic tut-tut, then move on. As this column was being published, Twyford remained uncertain whether any compensation would be paid to those affected by the “contamination” panic.

Even in post-earthquakes Christchurch, the initial wave of heartfelt sympathy and political attention eventually receded, leaving individuals to fight drawn-out battles with EQC over botched repairs that, mostly, just aren’t that absorbing to the rest of us.

In these cases, “bigger than politics” can mean something different. The complications don’t make for easy political wins, either for a minister engineering a resolution or for an Opposition politician looking to make a hit on the government. When empathy fatigue sets in among the public, it’s easy for politicians – and the media too, sadly – to lose interest.

With luck, an especially persistent journalist, lawyer, activist or politician might stay on the case, but the struggles can often be lonely ones.

When crisis strikes, citizens should be able to depend on the power of the state and its agencies. But when they suffer injustices played out in bureaucratic slow motion, or on shifting regulatory sands, the help they need can be painfully hard to find. And it isn’t as if the victims involved can always claim to be “the backbone of the country”.

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