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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition: 6th April 2004

Upton-on-line

Diaspora Edition

6th April 2004

In this issue

France's regional elections as a new form of French exceptionalism, saving the world's oceans in a sea of words and lessons from New Zealand's agricultural liberalisation 15 years on.

March madness

The French Government has scored an undoubted first by making world news out of its regional elections. This takes some doing even in France. For New Zealanders it is unimagineable since regional government is all but invisible. That was thought broadly to be the case here but when the socialist opposition managed to capture 21 out of 22 regions last Sunday even hardened Gaullists had to pinch themselves. (Only Alsace survived in the hands of the right which seemed to evince a certain Teutonic stubbornness at odds with the latin capriciousness of the republic at large.)

In a land which treats politics as grand opera, there have been all sorts of ritual declarations from balconies, fallings on swords and sweeping gestures. The Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, handed in his resignation only to have it grandly rejected by the President. Instead, senior Ministers exchanged chandelier-lit offices, a bunch exited (including upton-on-line's favourite philosopher-education minister, Luc Ferry) and even more new ones arrived. The best bit, however, has been the packaging of the portfolios with a special emphasis on appearing more 'social'. There is a mega-portfolio of employment, work and social cohesion in the hands of Jean-Louis Borloo. Sheltering under his wings are two associate ministers, one responsible for 'the fight against insecurity and exclusion' ( la précarité et l'exclusion) and the other, deliciously, for 'integration and equality of luck' ( l'intégration et l'égalité des chances ... well, ok, opportunities).

With verbal eiderdowns like these, who could entertain any fear of being left out in the cold? Well, quite a few. Because with a ballooning public debt, weak growth and a yawning budget deficit it would appear that the Government's grip on events is somewhat précaire. The only politician on the right to have emerged unscathed and smiling is the dashing Nicolas Sarkozy who wants to be President. A tad too unscathed for the current incumbent it would appear, who has decided to make Sarkozy's future a little more précaire by giving him the finance portfolio. It will take more than an equality of luck for this infectiously ambitious - and superbly polished - politician to rescue the day. There will be those who hope he will, nonetheless. After all, if the only remaining place of exile in mainland France is Alsace, there just won't be enough jobs to go around.

Saving the world's oceans (on paper at least)

There may be fewer fish in the seas these days, but do not worry; if you dip your net into the ocean of verbiage that UN processes generate, you will harvest riches beyond belief. The latest evidence of this may be found in Resolution A/RES/58/240 of the UN General Assembly adopted at its fifty-eighth session . The resolution issues from the annual debate on Oceans and the Law of the Sea. It is a 79 paragraph triumph preceded by 18 preambular paragraphs recalling, emphasising, reaffirming, recognising, underlining and reiterating all manner of previous callings, emphasisings, reaffirmations, recognitions and underlinings.

Nothing is too insignificant to escape a verbal expression of concern, emphasis or, in some gravely exciting cases, reiterated emphasis! There is nothing, it seems, that cannot benefit from one or several solutions drawn from the UN's verbal kitset. Without knowing anything about the issues it would be possible to write a very respectable recommendation by mixing and matching from some familiar word sets. A manual for beginners might go something like this:

Select a verb: encourage, welcome, call upon, reiterate, develop, consider, invite, strengthen;

Select an appropriate object: States, international organisations, regional organisations, the Secretary-General; etc

Choose one or more solutions: co-operation, co-ordination, consultation, integration, protection, preservation;

Add adjectival sharpener or softener: urgent, effective, transparent, timely, relevant, intensified

Qualify with one of the following phrases: consistent with, in accordance with, where appropriate, subject to, as recognised by

Rearrange as appropriate to secure consensus (and don't tell the fish).

The triumph of process over substance

There will no doubt be those who will reproach upton-on-line with being excessively cynical. In his defence, he notes that as Chairman of the the 7th Session of the Commisssion on Sustainable Development in 1999, he fought long and hard to generate a way round the sterile way in which oceans issues were addressed by the UN. 12 months lobbying resulted in a recommendation to set up something called the UN Informal Open-Ended Consultative Process on oceans and the law of the sea. The idea was that there would be an annual consultation on one or two key oceans issues that required the world's attention. Countries would choose crunchy issues, examine them in detail and then provide the General Assembly with some pithy analysis and maybe a recommendation or two. The reason for doing this in a UN setting is that the oceans are governed by international law and, on the High Seas, belong to no country. Only genuinely inter-national action can make a difference.

Upton-on-line hadn't reckoned with the ability of UN-based negotiators to reduce anything to a procedural treadmill. Not that he wasn't warned! When NZ was invited to chair the session, upton-on-line naively asked his MFAT advisers what we could expect to achieve in chairing it. With a frankness disarming from an MFATic (a breed known for the nuanced nature of its advice), the reply was "Nothing". Horrified, upton-on-line suggested that we should let our lucky Australian cousins chair the session but was mollified by the sage advice of seasoned negotiators that 'nothing' was susceptible to many interpretations and some were quite substantive.

So the quest for the Open-Ended Consultative Process began. The rest is history. An apparent victory for candid debate has become a hatchery for prosodic paralysis. Most of the time set aside for the 'consultation' is now occupied with negotiations over verbal formulae. Try reading paragraph 52 of the resolution for example (readers are advised to take a very deep breath and speak quickly):

52. Invites the relevant global and regional bodies, in accordance with their mandates, to investigate urgently how to better address, on a scientific basis, including the application of precaution, the threats and risks to vulnerable and threatened marine ecosystems and biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction; how existing treaties and other relevant instruments can be used in this process consistent with international law, in particular with the Convention, and with the principles of an integrated ecosystem-based approach to management, including the identification of those marine ecosystem types that warrant priority attention; and to explore a range of potential approaches and tools for their protection and management; and requests the Secretary-General to cooperate and liase with those bodies and to submit an addendum to his annual report to the General Assembly at its fifty-ninth session, describing the threats and risks to such marine ecosystems and biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction as well as details on any conservation and management measures in place at the global, regional, subregional or national levels addressing these issues;

Upton-on-line's count is 175 words, with no full stops, eight commas and four semi-colons. This is one of the reasons u-o-l is now assisting five ministers with a staff of two and half and only three semi-colons between them, to take a different approach to galvanising action against illegal high seas fishing. It will take a couple of years. In the meantime the task force would be pleased to hear from any subscribers who note any change in the number of paragraphs caught by fishermen in their region.

For readers gripped by paragraph 52 above, the full text can be found at:

http://www.un.org/Depts/los/general_assembly/general_assembly_resolutions.htm

A missionary position

Upton-on-line was invited recently to address the Société des Agriculteurs de France on the subject of how New Zealand managed to remove its agricultural subsidies. It was an invitation too delicious to refuse despite the daunting requirement that the address and subsequent questions be delivered in French. (This, it must be said, turned a speech which would normally have presented the challenge of a standard one morning talk into the sort of harrowing ordeal normally experienced by hapless witnesses under cross-examination. Upton-on-line defies any anglophone to say liberalisation swiftly three times in a row...) It seemed a golden opportunity to expose the holy grail to the infidels and effect a miraculous conversion.

Such an ambition was somewhat shattered by the size of the audience - 20 people recovering from luncheon in an upper room. It was further dashed when one of the number introduced himself as a frequent pilgrim to the south seas shrine and an admirer of Ruth Richardson. It started to feel more like the secret gathering of a banned sect. Most subversive movements suffer a long night before the dawn and upton-on-line had the strong feeling he had arrived only shortly after midnight. But if giving heart to the heretics was what it was all about, it was time well spent and the company, if select, was warm. Here are the lessons upton-on-line drew from New Zealand agriculture's near-death experience:

Firstly, to succeed, a liberalisation programme must be carried through single-mindedly. Trying to do it gradually risks leaving people querying the commitment to see the changes through to their conclusion. Certainty of reform is essential for its success. A policy that is too gradual is prey to conflicting signals and vulnerable to special interest groups. That is not to say that genuine transitional measures should not be adopted. But they must be measures that assist the change, not delay it. Securing the CAP until 2013 is a guaranteed way of leaving everyone in doubt about the likelihood of reform. Perhaps that is the objective!

Secondly, it is vital to look at the full range of rules and regulations that inhibit the adaptiveness and responsiveness of the sector that is being asked to change. In New Zealand s case there were widespread reinforcing reforms in overall macro-economic management and micro-economic regulation. Controls on the aggregation of landholdings were relaxed. But problems remained where there were rules making it difficult to subdivide land. These in some cases removed options that would otherwise have been available to farmers to resolve their problems by selling part of their property and intensifying their use of the balance. Rules and regulations that are designed to maintain the status quo will make adjustments much more painful and as a result probably cost taxpayers a great deal more.

Thirdly, reforms will never be spear-headed by the political friends of those who benefit from subsidies, rules, regulations and tax breaks. The reforms in New Zealand were undertaken by a left wing government that represented virtually no farmers. They were not popular for doing so. But they argued the case coherently and forced the farmer s party to confront the unsustainable and immoral nature of the policies that had led to the crisis. In the end, everyone including the farmers themselves ended up supporting the broad thrust of the reform. Debate was over the timing and distribution of pain.

Fourth, reform is much more easily achieved if there is complete transparency about the nature of the changes. This transparency is as important for those affected by the reforms as for the population at large. In truth, everyone is involved. Every citizen is a taxpayer and has the right to know how much those subsidies are costing him or her. It is equally important to jettison any mantras that mask the problems. In New Zealand, farmers had grown used to being called the backbone of the nation . It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they really were the backbone of the nation, they must be untouchable musn t they?

One can identify the same element of untouchableness here in France as the representatives of the political elite parade each year before the Salon d Agriculture, each one of them photographed alongside some prize-winning animal, and each making a declaration of undying solidarity with the farming community. It was just like that in New Zealand. But words of undying solidarity don t resolve problems and, beyond a certain point, begin to be condescending. One of my most positive experiences rural MPs had was the opportunity to talk frankly with farmers who weren t any longer expecting expressions of sympathy and support but sought, rather, an honest, frank analysis of their situation. If you read [French] newspapers, you will find that European politicians from all countries still talk at length about how supportive they are rather than candidly confronting the reality of the situation.

Fifth, winning a non-farming constituency for agricultural liberalisation is made much easier when the negative environmental consequences of subsidies are explained. They are real and they exist here in Europe and in the USA every bit as much as they did in New Zealand. Paying people to produce things the market is not demanding inevitably leads to wasteful use of scarce environmental resources. That is not to say there will be no environmental problems caused by agriculture in the absence of subsidies, there will. Environmental regulations are needed to protect common water and soil values.

Sixth, reform will come about if there is a crisis. This is in a way the most sobering and perhaps depressing conclusion. New Zealand got rid of subsidies because it could no longer afford them. It relied on agriculture for its prosperity. If it was having to prop it up on fiscal life-support systems, there had to be a better way. New Zealand is much poorer than countries like France. As a result, its ability to avoid reality through recourse to borrowing was much more limited. To put it bluntly, the poorer you are, the less rope people will give you to hang yourself with. The converse also applies. Rich countries like France are given much more leeway before bad policy and fiscal extravagance catches up with them. (The ultimate example must be the USA which is basically absorbing the world s savings to finance its current consumption; it will be able to do so for a long time but eventually even America will have to confront the bill it is sending to future generations).

The seventh and final observation is that there is no textbook way to conduct an agricultural liberalisation programme. New Zealand s experience was rooted in its particular history, culture, institutions and financial frailty. So it is not an exportable story that can or should be applied slavishly elsewhere.

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