Green Statement On GE Inquiry Application
Application for Interested Person Status at the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification
Green Party of Aotearoa Inc
Statement by Jeanette Fitzsimons, Co-leader, 10 August 2000
The Green Party is an incorporated society with a nation wide membership of 2,535 persons. It took its present form and name in 1990 when Values, the Green Party of Aotearoa (formed 1972) merged with a number of locally focussed green groups. Throughout that 28 year period our members have engaged in policy debate and local action for social change to further the principles in our charter, which are similar to those held by more than 100 green parties around the world. Seven of our members have been elected to Parliament, but for our members being a Green is more about a way of life than being an electoral machine for parliamentarians. I am one of the two elected co-leaders of the party and it is in that capacity, representing our members, rather than as a parliamentarian, that I speak to you today.
In asking that the Green Party be granted interested person status, may I begin by thanking all four of you for your commitment to NZ's future in taking on this demanding task. I have spent a significant part of my life in the last 3 years finding out and talking about genetic engineering and I know it is hugely complex.
Genetic engineering is a difficult topic because it is based in a scientific world where people are trained to work inside boxes, but it raises many questions which cannot be answered from inside a box. Questions like what is life and do we have the right to alter it? Questions of risk and who should pay if things go wrong? And questions of rights - the right of consumers to know what they are eating and the right of scientists to follow new knowledge.
They are questions of ethics, values, public policy, economics, as well as of science. People working in the field of genetic engineering cannot help the commission on those non-scientific questions any more than the public at large. On social values, no-one has an interest greater than anyone else, and there are no experts, but these issues must not be excluded because no-one wishing to address them has status before the Commission.
The Green Party has struggled since it was founded with questions like these, which are raised when one must determine public policy in the absence of scientific certainty. We were deeply involved with similar questions raised in the seventies about whether NZ should adopt nuclear power. They also occur in decisions about the management of highly hazardous substances.
One of our four founding principles is ecological wisdom. We know that all life and ecosystems are interconnected, that our lives, our economy and our emotional and mental wellbeing depend ultimately on maintaining the health of the natural world. This is often in conflict with the reductionist view of the world adopted by some branches of science which attempts to explain nature by looking at smaller and smaller disconnected parts. Ecology is about relationships, and we do not believe you can understand a person or a plant by describing its individual genes.
The Green Party has applied for interested person status because we have a responsibility to our members to represent their views as effectively as possible to the Commission. Those members are not the general public - but a group of people who have committed to working together to represent green philosophies in their families and communities, as well as in politics.
Green philosophies are not held by the whole of the public, and those who do hold them therefore have an interest apart from other interests which they may hold in common with the public. I believe effective participation requires the presentation of an oral submission to the commission on behalf of all our members, and the opportunity to question other submitters on their behalf, at the discretion of the Commission of course.
Many of our members earn their living from organic food production, and believe that commercial release of genetically modified organisms could threaten their livelihood. Many of those 2,500 members, especially the large numbers of new members who joined in the past year, became members because of our stance against the commercial release of GMOs. Our Safe Food policy - ratified by our members - requires the party to work towards a New Zealand with no field testing or production of any genetically modified food, and towards the goal of being an organic nation by 2020.
Our Maori arm, Te Roopu Pounamu, has a specific interest in the ethical, cultural and spiritual implications of genetic engineering, based on tikanga and the partnership required by the Treaty of Waitangi as well as on Green philosophy.
It has been suggested that the Green Party should be excluded as an interested person because we are represented in Parliament. My response is that we went into Parliament so that we would have another place to raise the Green voice - Green politics have always been more about what's happening on the street than in Parliament. And there is nothing in the legislation that prevents a political party from gaining interested person status.
Our desire to protect the ecological systems we all depend on has always, and will always, come first. And in fact it is our very desire to contribute to the strategic direction of New Zealand in issues such as genetic engineering that took us into politics in the first place. We care far too deeply about those issues to have any interest in abusing your processes for political purposes or wasting your time.
Our concern about genetic engineering addresses both parts of the warrant you are acting under - the strategic options and the best regulatory, legislative, policy and institutional framework for New Zealand. Our deepest concern is over the release of genetically modified crops and animals into the environment, because of the unpredictable behaviour of these organisms in sensitive ecological systems.
In 1977 I took part in hearings of the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power chaired by Sir Thaddeus McCarthy. This was a subject where feelings ran as high as they do on genetic engineering, and there was conflict between those whose careers were involved in nuclear technology and those who were concerned about safety and NZ's strategic options. I was deeply impressed with this forum as a place where ordinary citizens could express their views on a matter of major public policy, and which allowed both rigorous testing of the evidence and simple statements of values. There were no parties, and no interested persons. Sir Thaddeus states in his report
This experience led me to advocate for the creation of a royal commission as the best forum I could find to have highly contentious issues fully and freely debated. I believe I was the first person to publicly raise the idea of public examination of the issue through a Royal Commission of Inquiry, and a petition in my name requesting a Royal Commission collected over 92,000 signatures during 1999.
I was aware of section 4(a) of the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908 when I launched my petition but assumed that as it had not constrained Sir Thaddeus it must be more relevant to inquiries into specific events or wrongdoings where interests different from the public do exist. Examples would be the Winebox or Erebus inquiries.
I respectfully suggest to you that any person who has taken the trouble to write an individual submission in their own words, to watch the media closely enough to find out the process to apply for standing, to make written application and even turn up to argue their case, clearly has an interest greater than the public at large, who have not done this, and should be given the right to present their case at a hearing.
I take from your public statements that you are very concerned about the short time available to complete your report and see this as an absolute deadline which reduces your ability to hear people the statute does not oblige you to hear. While the matter is urgent, the Minister has also stated that if more time is needed it can be granted and I believe this would be preferable to excluding members of the public who genuinely wish to be heard. I doubt many of them would wish to cross examine, and in any case this right is at your discretion as chair.
Thank you for the opportunity to present our case.