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Transcript: Sir Peter Elworthy On RNZ

Note: Transcribed is Sean Plunkett interviewing Sir Peter Elworthy, spokesman for the Sustainability Council of NZ, launched yesterday, followed by analysis with Radio New Zealand's political editor, Al Morrison. Thanks to Ms Zelka Vallings, ex-Catskills typist, for the transcription.

Radio NZ 3-7-02

INTERVIEWER
A new GE-free pressure group made up of prominent New Zealanders is calling on the government to leave the moratorium on GE in place for five years. The group's led by businessman and former Federated Farmers president Sir Peter Elworthy, and includes sporting stars Susan Devoy, actor Sam Neill, biochemistry professor Garth Cooper and food writer Annabel Langbein. At present GE is restricted to the laboratory and controlled trials. The moratorium stops GE organisms being released into the envoironment but it runs out next October. The Green Party says its bottom line for supporting Labour is that the moratorium's extended indefinitely, but Sir Peter's advocacy group, called the Sustainability Council of New Zealand, wants it left in place for five years. Sir Peter joins us in the studio now; good morning.

SIR PETER ELWORTHY
Good morning.

Sir Peter, we can't talk about this without forgetting - without remembering - that there's an election on right now. Is your group saying "Vote Green" because it would be the only political party right now that is the party that is closest to your position on this issue?

We're certainly not saying "Vote Green". We're apolitical. We've been planning this for six months, we find ourselves in the middle of an election because the prime minister called an early election. If people want to play politics with it, they may, but we've made a decision based upon firm research and facts and have put together a very sound, research based -

Firm research, or simply the fact that from your press release we simply don't know enough to make a decision about this moratorium?

Exactly.

Is that firm research or simply an uneasy feeling?

Well, we've talked to a lot of scientists. We have probably the pre-eminent, certainly one of the most eminent genetic scientists, Dr Garth Cooper, on our group. He will say today that New Zealand needs more time. There's been little research done since the Royal Commission report, there's a lot to do to make New Zealand agriculture safe, and not to knock our markets around.

Are you saying the Royal Commission got it wrong then?

I'm saying that the Royal Commission is the government recognised having a moratorium for two years didn't examine every issue, they didn't do some of the research that was required on risk, and other areas, and scientists and others tell us, and new Zealanders are telling us through the polls, we need more time. We're saying, lets take more time, because the stakes are huge.

Who brought this group together? You say "we", who are "we"?

Simon Terry and I have been associated for some years. He's had a hard working secretariat operating for six months. He and I just happened to get together and say "Look, we're concerned about this". He'd done the research on strict liability, which resulted in that book, and so we started to have a look at it. I'd been enquiring from Federated Farmers, the meat industry and other groups, because I pay for them and I wanted to know why they were so positive about introducing this, particularly as the polls and my soundings anecdotally from farmers said, "Just be careful". And that's what the polls are saying, the majority of farmers are saying be careful, we're saying "Give us time".

Do you believe then it's a fiction that the farming community, the agricultural community is behind the lifting of the moratorium?

The polls say they don't, and my talk to farm families says they don't.

That's surprising then, when we think of the fact that other polls show that National Party voters, many of them from rural areas and associated with farming are thinking of voting Labour to stop the Greens who oppose - who are for the indefinite extension of the moratorium, from holding the balance of power in government?

My reading of that is that it's a much wider issue than just the Greens issue on genetic engineering. A lot of farm families according to my discussions with them think that the Greens policy on marijuana and other way out issues - that's what puts people off out in the New Zealand's countryside, amongst others.

Have you paid for the set-up of the group so far? How has it been funded?

It's been funded by individuals and some companies who -

Can you tell us who the companies are?

Certainly not.

Why not?

Because people who make donations to groups like ours want their identity known only to us.

Why is that? Because their motives might be questioned?

They can and will go public if they want to. It's not my job to go public for them.

It just seems to me you've entered a very very active public debate. Unless there's complete openness and honesty about who's driving your group, questions might be asked about your motives.

Our motives you can question, but they're sound, and the people who financed us are concerned for what we are concerned about. There's a substantial number of individuals who say "We need more time. This is a big issue". Once it's out on New Zealand farmlands, can't get it back.

So at the moment you're a secret trust in terms of funding?

We are a trust, and trusts don't normally tell who's funding.

You've chosen to keep it secret. All right, you want a five year extension of the moratorium. Do want that policy adopted by the major political parties or whomever is government after the election?

Five years from now, and we, on sound scientific advice, are very positive that that's the time that's needed, and that'll be tight, and the answer is: Clearly, New Zealand decison makers, political and beaurocratic, to agree that that's what we require, and we've got lots of evidence to back that.

Have you approached those political decision makers before the launch of your group?

Not yet, no. Clearly not. We wanted to launch -

Have you considered doing this through the back door without launching this publicly in the middle of an election campaign?

We're not back door people.

Despite the fact that your funding's secret?

That's normal for groups like ours.

Do you believe you can - or what's your time frame for getting the major political players around to your point of view? Do you want this to become an issue, and something they take a stand on before election day, for example?

We certainly want the political parties and everyone in New Zealand to recognise that we've done a lot of homework, and that what we are saying is "This is a really big issue for New Zealand, bigger than the nuclear issue because once it's out there it can't be brought back in, and so we are saying "Give it time" and we're being advised by very prominent scientists, working in the genetic engineering area, that that time is required. That's our basis.

I'll come back to the question - would you like the major parties to declare where they stand on this prior to polling day?

Well clearly we want decision makers to recognise our stance, to agree with it, and allow the time which is required for New Zealand's agricultural safety and market?

Did you consider delaying the launch until after the election and lobbying whoever was the government then? Perhaps be more focussed, because obviously enetering into this debate at this time means that you are in the middle of a storm of other debates and wider issues because of the election?

A lot of people would say that is is much better debated out of the political arena. We have been planning this for six months. I came back from overseas early to deliver on what we'd been planning, and here we are in the middle of an election campaign and we just hope that people will realise we've done our homework, and what we are saying is very soundly based. And that includes everyone in politics, all parties.

Finally Sir Peter, looking at this in a very broad context, is it an attempt by your group - I'm not saying this is right or wrong - simply to say that the GE debate shouldn't be captured just by the Green Party, but it's a debate that has to be had across all spectrums of political thought in New Zealand society?

I couldn't have expressed myself better than agreeing with your question.

Thank you very much indeed. Sir Peter Elworthy, from the new group the Sustainability Council of New Zealand which is going to launch at 9 o'clock today in Wellington. It's 17 past 7. And joining us now is political editor Al Morrison. Al, Sir Peter may want to keep this out of politics, but we know that the GE debate is very much part of this election, what is the political significance do you think of this group being launched?

AL MORRISON Radio NZ political editor
I think what it could do is entrench GE as a defining election issue, if not THE defining election issue. I know a lot of the concerns are around education and health and law and order, but those are CONCERNS - they don't necessarily shift votes in a direction. This ones got the potential to shift votes. It's a potential nightmare for National, because look at the options of someone for whom GE is the big election issue. If they're anti-GE, then really they've only got the Greens to vote if it's that important to them. And I would have said that at this stage the Greens have probably extracted as much vote as they can from this issue while it's sort of ghetto-ised as a left-wing issue. What you've now got is a sort of conservative group that's lent credibility to it across the spectrum, and so that's got the potential to lift that Green vote. If you are pro-GE, then what is it going to do? I mean you're going to look at the polls, as some people are doing now, anticipate a Labour win and vote Labour to keep the Greens out. On the other hand it's also a bit of a nightmare for Labour, because what it does is it takes an issue that has really been the Greens issue, a left wing issue, that they can typecast as somewhat extreme, and it gives credibility across the spectrum. Now you put that beside the polls that are saying about 60% of New Zealanders want the moratorium extended, and Labour's got problems.

Al, from what we've seen so far and we must note the launch isn't going to happen until 9 o'clock this morning, is there any new information added to this issue or is it a focus change, if you like?

It is a focus change but it's a very significant one. The left has primarily been concerned about safety issues and that spectre of images of triffids and scary monsters. This group's making a very big plug on the trade advantage front. It's saying look, EVEN if it's safe (and we don''t know that), but even if it's safe, why do it when consumers in Britain and Europe and Japan and so on are demanding GE [free] and few countries can deliver those products?

The Clark government we know has been very focus group- or poll-driven. Does a group like this perhaps make it easier for the prime minister to soften her stand on the moratorium if she gets back in and compromise in a way that will allow her to do a deal with the Greens?

I think this sends the ninth floor into a tailspin actually. There is a small problem with the five years. I think they can probably argue you can't ask a government to commit the next government, and let me just correct something we've been saying this morning - except it's probably my fault we were saying it actually - the Greens haven't asked for the moratorium to be left in INDEFINITELY - even the Greens have been saying you can't commit the next government. What they're asking for is it's there for the three year term of the next governemnt. You can probably only do it in three year bits, but Labour will certainly be bothered, because it's pinned its economic growth strategy on the biotechnology industry, andf what it's concerned about is that if it doesn't lift the moratorium as it said it will next October it's going to send an anti-science message and the domestic and overseas investment for the biotechnology industry in New Zealand will dry up. So now you've got, really, an issue that's got actually the potential of the anti-nuclear issue to build in that way. It's got the ability to become [an] emotional and popular point that the government can't ignore, and it's not just an election concern. The big focus is actually going to be the moratorium next year. It's hard to tell at this stage obviously how big the issue's going to become, but this group's certainly upped the ante and you've now got a coalition of the left and the right feeding it.

Finally Al, because we've got you here the latest Herald-Digipoll out showing party political support. Labour vote down by a point, Greens up by a point, no major changes there?

There's no major changes. That commanding lead of Labour's and the ability to govern on its own despite the fact the Greens are growing on the left, is pretty much entrenched at this point. I would point out though that poll was taken before the party openings; the campiagn's got under way this week, so it will be the polls that are taken during the campaign that are really going to show whether there's much shift. But at the moment there's a six months trend and it's really entenched.

And of course there's only one that really really counts?

Absolutely.

On the 27th. Al Morrison, thank you very much indeed. It's 22 minutes after 7...


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