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Gordon Campbell on govt’s latest handout to agri-business

Gordon Campbell on the government’s latest handout to agri-business


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Given the bumper earnings from commodity prices, you might think agriculture would be the last sector in need of a government handout – but no, at yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference, John Key, Nick Smith and David Carter unveiled a series of irrigation scheme handouts for farmers and agribusiness. This largesse will include a $35 million “accelerated investment” fund over the next five years, rising to a possible $400 million fund for irrigation scheme investment by the government where taxpayers would be excluded – but of course ! – from owning or accessing the commercial benefits from the investment they will have so generously seeded.

Talk about picking winners, corporate welfare etc etc. (Not a peep from the Act Party and its new leader so far on this violation of their core principles.) As for National, these irrigation funds are but the latest is in a grand old tradition of handouts and subsidies for farmers stretching back to the SMPs of the Muldoon era. Over at The Standard, the latest moves are being placed in the context of China’s wider long term interests in gaining a controlling stake in New Zealand natural resources.

Yesterday, Nick Smith was at pains to put the irrigation plans – and the inevitable intensification of NZ farming practices and land use that they herald – in the context of a related ‘contestable’ freshwater cleanup fund, and enhanced standards for water purity and minimal flows. Because, as Smith conceded, “unless we do it right, it [farming intensification] can lead to environmental degradation.”

You bet. The trouble is, as Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman quickly pointed out, Smith has actually gutted the process for clean water standards proposed in the draft National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS)

Nick Smith has removed the provision from the draft NPS which requires a resource consent, as a discretionary activity, for land use intensification. This is despite the fact that nearly every report on water quality identifies land use intensification as the main cause of water quality decline in New Zealand," Dr Norman said.

For example, a 2010 article by the National Institute on Water and Atmosphere says that our declining river water quality is undoubtedly associated with the intensification of pastoral farming and the conversion of drystock farmland to dairy farming, particularly in Waikato, Southland, and Canterbury. "Despite the evidence, Nick Smith has taken out provisions that will force regional councils to regulate land use intensification," said Dr Norman.

"The Government has not only disregarded the recommendations of the [expert] Board of Inquiry, it has also disregarded the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum which comprises 58 diverse stakeholder groups. The Forum recommended that the draft NPS be adopted quickly, and with only minor changes, that would not undermine its strength. "What constituency is the Government serving by undermining their own experts and stakeholders and pulling the teeth from the NPS?

Why, agribusiness of course.

***

The Decider, and the Writer Down

Years ago, in his famous speech to the White House correspondents dinner satirist Stephen Colbert defined the relationship between government and journalism. Those in power decide: and the media simply writes it down. That’s how it works. Journalism is the art of transcribing the words of the powerful. This morning’s Herald editorial provides a telling example of the art of transcription.

At yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference, the Prime Minister had sought to deflect criticism of his $275,000 refurbishment of Premier House – this, at a time when budgets for services to the public are either are being frozen or scaled back. Key argued that (a) it was “hardly lavish” to maintain an asset that hadn’t been repainted in eleven years and (b) such trifles were to be taken as a sign that Labour couldn’t make headway on more important issues : “Labour knows that unemployment was falling, cancer waiting lists are falling, crime rates are falling, We created 30,000 jobs in the first quarter of this year. Labour doesn’t want to talk about interest rates being at an all time low....”

Blimey. So everything is going swimmingly. Who knew? Apparently, only the small-minded and envious feel bothered by evidence that our leaders are not deferring their own comforts, or practicing the thrift they argue is so essential for the rest of us. The Herald’s editorialist agrees wholeheartedly: “Labour seems to think the public begrudges John Key the usual trappings of office.” Of course they don’t ! Under the headline “Labour energy better directed to the Budget” the newspaper channels Key’s “let them eat cake’ sentiments into print:

Premier House in Wellington, where Prime Ministers can live and entertain, is being repainted and recarpeted at a cost of $275,000. Mr Key says it had not been repainted for 11 years. He says he is happy to accept any scrutiny he is put under but wonders why Labour is raising such trivial issues. He is not alone…..Against a Prime Minister whose popularity is on the wane, this sort of pitch might work….. It is only likely to rebound on the Opposition, showing it to be miserable, mean-spirited and out of tune with the country's mood.

Oddly enough, the Herald’s own – albeit unscientific – online readers’ poll shows respondents as being almost equally divided about the merits of the Premier House revamp.

***

Fast Food Employment Hell

The welfare reforms that the government has signalled as a second term priority will have the effect of forcing beneficiaries into accepting virtually any “reasonable” job offer that comes their way. For a salutary glimpse into just how hellish some of those jobs can be, I heartily recommend this brilliantly written US Business Week article into the production line work practices at such fast food industry outlets as Taco Bell.

For starters, the language used onsite is pretty instructive. Workers are called Food Champions or Service Champions, subdivided into Steamers, Stuffers and Expeditors. Every word they utter, every hand movement they make, every folding action and footstep between counter and grill has been scripted and measured to serve the 164 second target between when the car arrives at the ordering station and when it pulls away from the pick-up window. For example:

The back of the restaurant has been engineered so that the Steamers, Stuffers, and Expeditors…take as few footsteps as possible during a shift. There are three prep areas: the hot holding area, the cold holding area, and the wrapping expediting area. The Stuffer in the hot holding area stuffs the meat into the tortillas, ladling beef with Taco Bell's proprietary tool, the BPT, or beef portioning tool. The steps for scooping the beef have been broken down into another acronym, SST, for stir, scoop, and tap. Flour tortillas must be cooked on one side for 15 seconds and the other for five…. The real challenge is the wrapping. Taco Bell once had 13 different wrappers for its products. That has been cut to six by labeling the corners of each wrapper differently. The paper, designed to slide off a stack in single sheets, has to be angled with the name of the item being made at the upper corner. The tortilla is placed in the middle of the paper and the item assembled from there until you fold the whole thing up in the wrapping expediting area next to the grill. The best Food Champions can prepare about 100 burritos, tacos, chalupas, and gorditas in less than half an hour, and they have the 78-item menu memorized.

Speed and accuracy are the catchwords for an industry expected to do $168 billion in sales for 2011, with about 70 percent of that coming in through the drive-thru windows.

Above me on the wall, a flat-screen display shows the average time of the last five cars at either the order station or the pick-up window, depending on which is slowest. If the number is red, as it is now, that means one, or both, of the waits is exceeding 50 seconds, the target during peak periods. It now shows 53 seconds, on its way to 60, 70 ... and then I stop looking. The high-pitched ding that announces each new customer becomes steady, unrelenting, and dispiriting—85 cars will roll through over the peak lunch rush. And I keep blowing the order script.

It's as if the great advances of human civilization, in everything from animal husbandry to mathematics to architecture to manufacturing to information technology, have all crescendoed with the Crunchwrap Supreme, delivered via the pick-up window.

For the skill and sweat needed to survive in this modern slave galley, the hourly pay is just above the minimum wage.

********

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