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Upton-On-Line - Diaspora Edition

26th April 2001


In this issue:

We consider the completely different way in which political drama is played out in France, the way in which bi-lateral relations are nurtured by countries with a serious approach to foreign relations, and agriculture as culture – the ingenious multi-functionality argument for agricultural subsidies.


Political Scandal as Grand Opera


Once a political animal, always a political animal. That is upton-on-line’s not terribly remorseful feeling as he reaches eagerly for Le Monde each night for the next instalment of the spectacle that is unfolding around the Presidency of Jacques Chirac. Given the gravitas with which all institutions of State are invested here in France, political scandal is treated with the utmost refinement.

Nothing is done crassly or quickly. In New Zealand, a whiff of scandal leading Shaun Plunkett to mow the victim down on Morning Report and ritual resignation demands in Parliament the same afternoon are about as much as we can hope for. The premature ejaculation of political spleen normally has reputations damaged (if not wrecked) and the country back to its normal diet of murders and depressing cricket scores within 48 hours.

Not so here. The splendour with which the embattled President is being ensnared is worthy of grand opera. And the pace of it all is truly glacial. It is a masterpiece still in the making but already of magisterial length. The number of acts is still unknown and the cast is still unfolding, but all at a pace which is positively glacial. The chef de l’État looks disdainfully down from the permanent ice fields of his high office as assorted magistrates and deputies fire sling shots at this magnificent edifice that has graced French political life for more than a quarter of a century.

Rather than waste the opportunity, everyone seems to have settled back to enjoy the show and defer the denouement.

It all goes back to City Hall

Like so many good romantic operas, it all goes back to manning the barricades at the City walls (although in this case it seems to have been, more accurately, a case of funding the barricades against the socialist hordes in Paris). Corruption uncovered at the Hôtel deVille in Paris was of a familiar variety: kickbacks on tenders let for city works used to defray the election expenses of the ruling RPR. (Purely for political purposes you understand: there is no suggestion - heaven forbid - of anything so degrading as someone using the money for their personal enjoyment. Just legitimate party political work! And apparently, in a rare case of even-handedness, the loot was distributed to other parties as well – even the communists!)

This was all back in the mid-1980s and it is awfully bad luck for the President that this coincides with his term as Mayor. Not that things have unfolded quickly. An investigating magistrate only picked the case up as recently as 1994 and it has taken a little while to piece the facts together. One unfortunate – Jean-Claude Méry, a former treasurer of the RPR – has already served a prison term in connection with the affair. He died in 1999 but, rather inconveniently, decided to make a video-taped confession in which he described brief cases full of notes changing hands, in one case, in the presence of M. Chirac. His activities, he said, were “uniquely at the orders of M. Chirac.”

The video fell into the hands of the judge. So one could perhaps understand the President’s reluctance about popping along to the court to help the Magistrate with his enquiries. Notwithstanding that, the President has made it clear that his natural inclination would be to front up since it would give him a chance to “wring the neck” of some of the rumours and insinuations. It’s just that he has to defend the Constitution – the separation of powers is a very sacred principle for the President and even to appear as a witness in respect of events long before he took up office as Head of State would fatally compromise them. His constitutional role, he points out, is to guarantee the independence of the judicial system!

So far so bad for M. Chirac. But then it wasn’t so good for the Socialist Party either. Because the smoking tape had been discovered in the hands of an ally of the Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s. And the uses to which he might have been tempted to put it – or his motive in acquiring it – can only be conjectured at. So one could understand a degree of diffidence on the part of Mr Chirac’s adversaries about using it to its fullest potential…

Dead witnesses are one thing. But the dogged Magistrate Halphen has now unearthed a living witness who has confirmed many of the details. Who knows how many more will come forward? For all this, no one seems in a hurry to press matters (other than magistrate Halphen). In New Zealand this would be the source of the most exquisite torture in Parliament. Here it seems to be the source of the most exquisite and delicious good manners.

Everyone is defending the judicial system…

The one Deputy (i.e. MP) who wants to arraign the President is getting a response ranging from tepid to outright hostile from his Socialist Party comrades. Here’s why. The President has insisted that the only body that can effectively call a President to account the Haute Cour – a parliamentary body comprised of Senators and Deputies. In support of this position he has a ruling from the Conseil Constitutionel, the highest constitutional body in the land which (under its then President, Roland Dumas – himself currently on trial for other alleged corrupt practices) decreed that the President could not be summoned in legal processes. So one Socialist Deputy – M. Arnaud Montebourg – has decided to call the President’s bluff and demand just such a hearing.

The trouble is that he is calling his own colleagues’ bluff as well and it is patently obvious that the Government, headed by M. Chirac’s likely opponent in next year’s Presidential Election, Prime Minister Jospin, doesn’t relish that prospect at all. The judgement has been made that any attempt to close in on the President by a court made up of parliamentarians (dominated by his political opponents) would simply be seen as a political witch hunt in which the Socialists’ own proximity to questionable practices might see the light of day.

So when M. Chirac demanded that the Prime Minister uphold the constitution by opposing his being summoned as a witness, M. Jospin - with delightful irony - politely insisted that it was of the utmost importance that he too upheld the constitution by not interfering with the determinations of the judiciary!

Allowing things to take their course - slowly

So everybody is on their very best constitutional behaviour, and the judicial process slowly eats away. M. Chirac hopes it will be slow since he has been assured of immunity as long as he remains in office (and if he can win a second term that will be a very long spell of immunity); and M. Jospin no doubt hopes it will be slow so that M. Chirac’s discomfort will be maximised during the Presidential elections.

And from what I could gather, talking to the tradesman who came to erect some curtain rods for me, the public at large hope it will be slow since it is providing such manifest entertainment. He was loving the spectacle – and indeed explained that it was all part of the latin soul of the nation.

Only the other day French television invited the distinguished and patrician former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to opine on the subject of presidential immunity. Rather than the scatter gun, slightly garrulous Linda Clark approach to interviewing people, the cool host for the current affairs programme allowed her illustrious guest to expand regally – and at great length – on why “there isn’t a single constitutional reason to prevent the President of the Republic from appearing as a witness”. Why, he added helpfully, he’d done so twice himself!

One gathers that M. Chirac is not on M. d’Estaing’s Christmas card list. He blames M. Chirac for spoiling his chance of a second presidential term long ago. But it was all done with courtly good manners and great subtlety. He was not, he underlined, in any way “interpreting ” M. Chirac’s refusal to help the judge. Just stating the facts as he saw them.

Who knows what new characters will burst onto the stage after the interval or how the final curtain will fall. But the country seems quietly enthralled by the unfolding drama with its complex plot and wonderful undercurrents. For a real political thriller, visit Le Monde’s site which has a special dossier – “Jacques Chirac et les affaires”. The address is www.lemonde.fr You too can enjoy a seat in the dress circle.


Talking to people rather than about them

New Zealanders and Australians assume that they are so culturally fluent that they can take each other for granted. Hence the obligatory Aussie and Kiwi jokes that are scattered randomly through speeches by visiting politicians, sports heroes and business people. Familiarity breeds contempt and we are very familiar and therefore very contemptuous.

The truth may be, however, that the one liners paper over a serious awkwardness that has grown not narrowed over the years. Australia is a big country that has to be taken seriously. We are, well … in another league shall we say.

But that shouldn’t prevent a serious engagement. In fact, from New Zealand’s point of view, it makes it even more imperative. Yet in upton-on-line’s time as a Parliamentarian, he had far more extensive contact with North American, Asian and European politicians, writers and business people than he did with Australians. It was assumed that Australia was a place you went on sporting missions or winter holidays and that all that inherited fluency would take care of itself.

Well it doesn’t. There is no substitute for an intensive, disciplined exchange of views. We should take a look at how some other countries do it. For 51 years, British and German leaders, commentators and academics have been meeting at the annual Königswinter Conference. It was established as part of the post-war reconstruction effort but has become a familiar and valued opportunity to make and maintain connections at an informal and personal level. The result is a wealth of Anglo-German networks that can be called on when there are problems in formal settings. But more importantly, there is a higher level of intuitive understanding about how the two countries are likely to react than there would be if everyone just watched television news or read the official press statements.

Our Prime Minister meets her Australian counterpart twice a year, a regular consultation that is valuable because it is not driven by any particular negotiating framework. But the way we conduct our bi-lateral relations, it is entirely possible for a New Zealand Prime Minister to reach the office having virtually no prior connections or contacts in Australia. The same applies a fortiori with respect to MPs and rafts of other people who, through academia or the media, influence our external attitudes.

It is time that we made a twenty-year investment in building up a generation of New Zealanders whose fluency with Australia extends beyond good-natured insults and cut-price weekends in Sydney.

Agri-culture

In addition to worrying about strikes, the forthcoming Presidential election campaign and the tactical minefield of the various political scandals that attach to key figures on both sides of the fence, the French Prime Minister, M. Jospin has also been travelling to Brazil to talk about globalisation.

France is a bit ambivalent about globalisation. It rather likes the idea of French companies swallowing up overseas ones and doing a spot of restructuring. But it doesn’t like it when overseas ones do the same in France. Even when they try to exit (which you would have thought was a triumph for France) they don’t like it. Hence, Marks & Spencer’s difficulties trying to shut its chain of retail outlets.

Mr Jospin explained to the Brazilians that France was conscious of her past, her distinguishing characteristics and her language. And that while she had nothing to fear from opening herself to the world, she would do so in “a measured way that took account of her particular economic realities, social compacts, political traditions and cultural traits”.

These, to an outsider, include (on the positive side) an immensely well informed and scholarly media; and (on the negative side) a propensity for aimless, serial strikes. They also include a near mystical view of agriculture. And Jospin lost no time telling his Brazilian audience that “we attribute great importance to the social, environmental and productive functions of European agriculture … and we intend to preserve this wealth especially at a moment when our farmers are going through a major crisis.”

This is the fabled notion of multifunctionality in agriculture and is normally spoken about by Europeans with a misty, distant look in the eye and a sense that the speaker is on the edge of particularly profound insights that may not be easily explained. It is not just a European idea. Multifunctionality is impressively cross-cultural with Japan too drawing much inspiration from this deep wellspring of insight. Here’s how it’s described by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (you’ll need to take your time – this is like advanced calculus):

12. The multifunctionality of agriculture has the following characteristics:
(a) most aspects of multifunctionality are regarded as economic externalities and it is difficult to reflect their values properly in market prices. Though it is closely related to production, it cannot be subject to trade;
(b) market mechanism alone cannot lead to the realisation of an agricultural production method that will embody the multifunctionality of agriculture.
13. Therefore, certain types of policy intervention are indispensable to place domestic agricultural production as a basis for food supply and to fulfil the multifunctional roles of agriculture. For this purpose, it is necessary to thoroughly examine, based on the past experiences of implementing the agreement on agriculture, how to portray the policy intervention for the fulfillment of the multifunctionality of agriculture in the international framework and as to what extent such intervention can be allowed.
14. Among a wide range of the aspects of the multifunctionality of agriculture, those meeting the following conditions can be examined in terms of their relationship with agricultural trade:
(a) where functions are closely related to, and cannot be separated from, agricultural production;
(b) where functions play an important role in relation to the agricultural production activities that have generally been observed;
(c) where the value of their function is commonly recognised by the people of a concerned country. "

Whatever it means in theory, in practice it means that it’s extremely difficult to open yourself to imports if you have a multifunctional form of agriculture. Coming from a farming family himself, upton-on-line knows that kiwi farmers have only one obsession – the bottom line. That’s why they’ve had such fabulous returns on capital, and sizzling incomes over the years. Worrying about the fabric of the local community, whether the school or the store survives, fencing off bits of bush and so on has never occurred to them. They’re myopic uni-functional robots who drive utes and listen to commercial radio.
Whereas their multi-functional cousins…? Well, they’re part of the cultural fabric of the landscape, nurturing an agricultural heritage for its spiritual and ecological significance. Or at least, that’s what policy gurus are rapidly trying to turn them into as the pressure for market access grows. The mass production systems that the CAP has spawned are suddenly looking a little lacking in heritage – and rather exposed to attack both within Europe and from without. So a new sort of agriculture must be created to preserve that wealth Jospin referred to.
Now it is easy to be cynical – and upton-on-line pleads guilty. But cynicism is no substitute for analysis and upton-on-line has come to the conclusion that New Zealand and other Cairns Group countries would be unwise simply to write off the idea of multi-functionality as simply an ingenious new justification for trade protectionism. That has tended to be the knee jerk response. But it may not be the smartest way forward.
Why not, instead, really get inside the issue. Ask the Europeans and the Japanese to be specific about the very special non market values of agriculture that are so important to them? Upton-on-line can think of a few – landscape values, places for tourists to drive through, quaint practices in the fields to be passed down the generations and so on. In fact most of them apply in New Zealand.
Either there is some real substance at the heart of multifunctionality or there isn’t. If there is, then specific measures can be designed to protect the special ‘non-market’ characteristics at stake. If there isn’t, then there’s nothing to protect. But what can’t stand scrutiny is the argument that this new multi-functionality just happens to require production at current levels. There are all sorts of ways to keep the countryside trim, tidy, touristic and spiritual – and the people in the fields feeling fulfilled – without having to produce mountains of commodities that can then only be disposed of in export markets. That would be cynical.

In fact, this is precisely what Agenda 2000 (the EU’s failed ‘reform’ package) tried to do - and failed. It failed because the French realised to their horror that multifunctionality was actually being taken seriously and funds would be transferred away from production-related support.
By taking the Europeans and Japanese seriously on some of the things they claim to be really worried about (on the environmental and food safety front for example), New Zealand would be forced to focus on characteristics that will be important if it is to continue to maintain a premium image with consumers. We’re not as clean or green as we’d like to believe – or if we are, we can’t prove it. Moving from fiction to fact would be a huge step forward. It’s what the OECD would describe as ‘maximising synergies’ – a real ‘win-win’.

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