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Post Cabinet Press Conference : Monday 9 September

OFFICE OF THE PRIME MINISTER

9 September 2002


POST CABINET PRESS CONFERENCE : MONDAY 9 SEPTEMBER

PM: Well the Cabinet met this morning, the main announcement forthcoming is on the next steps of the painted apple moth which Mr Sutton has come down to brief you on shortly. We've also had some discussion about Iraq prior to Phil Goff departing for New York and Washington. The position remains the same: that New Zealand does not support unilateral intervention in Iraq.

Coming up this week we have the East Timor Foreign Minister in town. I am seeing him later today. The President of course comes next week. We have a continuing series of briefing paper releases, briefing papers for new Ministers. Wednesday will be a big day here with 11 September commemorations. Thursday, we are releasing the government's Early Childhood Education strategy.

Coming up in the House this week we're getting down to the hard work of the legislative programme, hoping this week to progress the Social Welfare Working Towards Employment Amendment Bill; the Subordinate Legislation (Confirmation and Validation Bill) which should get its first reading; the Maori Purposes Bill No. 2, balance of its first reading; Animal Products Amendment Bill we hope to progress with a second reading; and also the Customs and Excise Amendment Bill second reading which has some positive revenue implications once it is passed. Wednesday is Members day. Jim Sutton will now brief you.

Hon Jim Sutton: There is a press release down the back on the painted apple moth programme and also copies of the relevant Cabinet paper there as well. We're going to start a greatly expanded programme on the painted apple moth and we hope to be able to eradicate it. The first aerial spray operation of the new wider programme is scheduled to start in early October. The new aerial spray zone covers 7836 hectares, which is twice the area of the successful 1996 white-spotted tussock moth programme in eastern suburbs. There will be 37,500 properties affected. The aerial spray zone covers Waitakere and some Auckland city suburbs from Massey West to lower Point Chevalier and Henderson Valley to New Lynn, Mt Albert. The area has been selected as the best for achieving eradication based on the latest scientific information. The aerial sprays will be at three-week intervals, three aircraft will be used at the same time operating in different areas. These will be two Fokker Friendships and a helicopter. The fixed wing aircraft will cover the large landmasses and the helicopter will tackle the seaward margins and the gullies. The aircraft will not fly in winds of over 12 kph to minimise spray drift. One operation could be completed in six hours in ideal conditions, spraying will start at first light if conditions are favourable. Up to 40 sprays over three years have been allocated but the operation will be reviewed regularly. The first review will report to Cabinet by the 30th April 2003. All residents in the spray zone and 200-metre buffer zone will be advised by letter and through newspaper advertising. MAF will hold meetings tomorrow to discuss operational aspects of the programme. They will meet community groups at 2.00 pm followed by media at 3.00 pm, meeting at AGRA Quality Linfield. The painted apple moth is a native of Australia. It's related to the white tussock moth that was successfully eradicated. Unlike the tussock moth, the painted apple moth female does not fly which limits its natural dispersal. This is why a staged approach to eradication was chosen to balance disruption to the community without compromising the eradication programme. However, the eradication programme you will be aware, hasn't been successful and so it's being expanded. The initial programme involved ground spraying and the removal of host plant material on which the caterpillar feeds and ongoing comprehensive trapping programme and visual property-by-property inspections or surveys were and still are conducted every seven to eight weeks to find out where the pest was. Targeted aerial spraying was approved by government in late October 2001 to supplement the ground based eradication programme. The programme to date has contained the pest and significantly decreased its numbers but it hasn't eradicated it. In New Zealand the painted apple moth is a threat to our forestry, horticulture and environment where there are few natural controls. It can feed on young pine trees up to eight years, affecting their growth and on many different types of plants. It particularly likes wattles and acacia, but has also been found feeding on over sixty plant species across 24 families. If it spreads, the economic cost to the country is estimated to be at least between 58 and 356 million dollars, that's over 20 years and that's the net present value of those costs. In addition there is really an incalculable threat to our indigenous environment and similarly incalculable threat from the larvae to human health. If you've got any questions I'll attempt to answer them.

Media: The cost of the programme?

Hon Jim Sutton: It's going to cost about 90 million dollars over three years. That includes what we're already done.

Media: …….you are spending more to eradicate it - why is this? The cost to the country is fifty eight million?

Hon Jim Sutton: Both the estimated cost, to eradicate, of the operation, is - you know that's a reasonably firm estimate but assuming that we have to go to the larger area within the limits I describe, the cost of the thing getting away and becoming established obviously it's been very difficult to arrive at as the range of $58 to $360 million indicates and the impact on our indigenous flora is very very difficult. In laboratory conditions it will live on almost anything this beast but out there in practice we can't really tell.

Media: [inaudible]

Hon Jim Sutton: Well the balance of advice received up until now or up until recently was that we should have a relatively low impact campaign that was still expected to lead to eradication firstly by removal of favoured host material and spraying from the ground by hand and so on and that didn't prove to be adequate and it was supplemented by targeted aerial spraying by helicopter and that has proved not to be adequate.

Media: What has been so far?

Hon Jim Sutton: I'm sorry I don't have the answer to that. It's not in my head but I think it's less than 20 million.

Media: [inaudible]

Hon Jim Sutton: No I don't - I think it has been technically an extraordinarily difficult project. There is never any guarantee that an exercise like this will be successful and there still isn't but we calculate the mean of the estimate chances of success of this new effort are in the order of 80 per cent and we are taking a precautionary approach because this is almost certainly the last chance we have of eradicating it.

Media: ….adverse reaction to spraying….what do you say to those people?

Hon Jim Sutton: Well we take their fears and their complaints very seriously and a significant amount of the money in the thing is providing them with medical advice and also providing them with assistance if they need it to leave the area at the time of each spraying but this is nevertheless the same spray that was used against the white spotted tussock moth and there were no serious side effects identified from that. It was very conscientiously monitored by the health authorities and there were no serious side effects identified. It is idle to suggest there are no side effects because people feel there are and people with respiratory problems may be irritated and so on and there are in place a thorough programme to mitigate these and to minimise the impact but this is an organic spray and the active material is widespread naturally occurring in the environment.

Media: [inaudible] and one of the things they say is would you be willing to legislate say people using or if you have friends in that area in that condition, would you be comfortable with that situation.

Hon Jim Sutton: Yes I would but I've read all the information that's been provided in briefings and so on and I feel that this is as safe as these things can be and I think the risk of this beast becoming endemic in the environment is greater both including in terms of human health because the larvae apparently they've got these whiskers on their backs and they can be intensely irritating to people I don't know. The Australians have more experience of that.

Media: Is the Prime Minister's home in the spray area?

PM: I don't whether it comes across as far as my house, but I would be perfectly relaxed if it did.

Hon Jim Sutton: There's pretty maps at the back with the briefing material.

Media: Prime Minister, you would be comfortable -

PM: Perfectly relaxed. I think the possible adverse effects of this moth getting established in New Zealand are incalculable. We do not know what the full impact could be for our exotic forestry industry. We do not know what the full impact could be on the native forest and the species which live off it. I think, given the estimates we've had of the probability of getting a successful eradication by MAF, we have to go with that advice. Now we will keep monitoring it and if at some point MAF advises us that they don't think they can hold to their original estimate of this successful eradication, then we'll have to bail out and take the consequences, but right now it would be irresponsible not to proceed to attempt eradication.

Media: [inaudible]

Hon Jim Sutton: No - no we couldn't, that's it. That's the best we can do. There are no guarantees of success in these things. If there were we wouldn't have possums or rabbits or gorse.

Media: So that leaves ……..possibility…..

Hon Jim Sutton: Yes.

Media: Why is the decision being taken now.

PM: We can't delay any longer basically. We're into a season where it's quite important to act now.

Hon Jim Sutton: Yes - the timing of the campaign is determined by the season and it needs to start early October. We moved some time ago to preserve our pre-moth decision, making sure there was enough spray material manufactured and so on to get the programme underway that the machinery was available and all the planning was made that sufficient project management staff were engaged and in place and all those things but we still retained the freedom to bail out if the advice changed and it was seen to be a lost cause but I'm happy about the timing of the decision and it's been a very thorough decision making process by Cabinet and by MAF bio security officials.

Media: Are there any others in the country that are affected?

Hon Jim Sutton: I hope not.

Media: Have you been given a timeframe of how far into the three years you'll have a fairly good idea of (a) whether we are getting on top of it…

Hon Jim Sutton: No I haven't specifically sought that but I would think that in a year's time we'll have a pretty good idea.

Media: Can you just remind us how we got that thing…..

Hon Jim Sutton: It's not entirely known. It is thought it was introduced in 1999 or maybe a year earlier and it's thought to be very likely that it was somehow in a container of material delivered to a factory yard but it's not known for sure that there was just one outbreak. There may have been more than one outbreak about the same time, within a few kilometres.

Media: You referred to it on a couple of occasions as a beast….

Hon Jim Sutton: Well I think of it as a beast really. I hope that's not disrespectful.

PM: Any other matters.

Media: Iraq - do you have the growing feeling that war is inevitable?

PM: I don't think it is inevitable. Clearly the Americans are going to the UN General Assembly this week to make their case. There is still a great deal of sceptism being expressed internationally about that and I guess we wait and see.

Media: If the dossier that Tony Blair is scheduled to release and if the…..American President and the UN…….would New Zealand then maybe…..

PM: I think the United Nations would need pretty clear evidence to change the track that it is on. We have said that our view is moving very much in line with that of the bulk of the international community. We don't wish to see unilateral intervention in Iraq and we think that decisions about Iraq should be taken at the UN level.

Media: What do you make Prime Minister, of the suggestions by some that part of the US interest in Iraq is in control of the Iraqi oil? Is there any truth to that?

PM: Well if Iraq didn't have oil and if it was in a less strategic position it would obviously be of much less interest to the international community in general, but I don't think that particular motivation would be driving this. I think we have to see this in the context of September 11 where the United States was very badly hurt psychologically, to say nothing of the three thousand deaths which resulted. It has a heightened sense of awareness of threat, and it is scanning the world to see where threats might come from. Having said that, there is no evidence which is linking September 11 to Saddam Hussein and at this point no evidence that matters with Iraq are any different from how they've been for quite some time. Reference was made in one newspaper report this morning to evidence being tabled from a report that was made public in 1998. Well if it was compelling in 1998, it should have been acted on then. So, from our point of view, we really haven't heard anything new and convincing, and I think that's where most of the international community is at the moment.

Media: Have you spoken to John Howard of what you understand the Australian position to be?

PM: I haven't spoken to John Howard since I was in Suva. We did touch on it then. From my reading of recent media reports, he is now expressing a preference for UN backing, but again from what I read, that is not saying that any Australian backing would be conditional on UN backing.

Media: So he'd be taking a stronger line in terms of unilateral rather than a multilateral approach - I mean….

PM: Yes, but that line seemed to blur a little at the weekend with the Australian government expressing more interest in a UN view on it.

Media: At the Summit, did you have any discussions about it with Tony Blair at all, or did you have any discussions with America……

PM: I haven't had any discussion with Tony Blair about it since April at which point I made it clear that New Zealand didn't favour unilateral action.

Media: You discussed it with George Bush earlier this year?

PM: At the end of March, that's correct, and he said at that time he had no plans on his desk and I'm sure that is still the case.

Media: Is New Zealand's position……..UN resolution…..

PM: What we've said is that action should be UN mandated. How the UN then interprets that is another matter.

Media: Peter Dunne this morning or this afternoon called for a UN management structure intervention as well - ….

PM: I'm sorry I have no idea because I haven't heard what he said.

Media: Would you be happy if just the UN resolution ……

PM: No, I think what's completely unacceptable is for the UN to take a position and then have individual countries unilaterally interpreting what they do with that position. Our position is that action on Iraq should be explicitly UN mandated. It's not a question of individual countries deciding what they might do with resolutions.

Media: Prime Minister if the United States did go in to Iraq would it then affect our involvement in Afghanistan?

PM: No, no, that's quite a separate matter.

Media: On the issue of Afghanistan, are you aware of a New Zealand expatriate in the British SAS receiving a medal?

PM: No, I wasn't aware of him, but clearly whoever he is, the British think very highly of him, and that's commendable.

Media: Is any other New Zealand soldier being recommended for any specific award?

PM: Not that I'm aware of - no.

Media: In terms of ….United Future, have you canvassed or what do you understand to be the situation here in terms of…….and the attitude to Iraq? Pretty much everyone is on the same line?

PM: No. I think ACT is out in a category on its own, but who would be surprised. I think others are standing back and saying where is the evidence.

Media: Will the government's position on Iraq affect the FTA?

PM: No, I think that matters relating to trade have far more to do with the American political cycle, the American economic cycle, and specifically the American farm economic cycle.

Media: [inaudible]

PM: We have said that decisions about what the international community does in Iraq should be decisions taken at the UN level.

Media: Will you…….

PM: No, absolutely not, and I think it's important to stress that the views New Zealand is uttering are very much in the main stream of world opinion.

Media: [inaudible]

PM: If the UN mandated action - yes we would endeavour to contribute in some way, but we are on the brink of withdrawing from Timor. We have an army which is undergoing a very substantial change in its equipment, and it is very much the desire of the New Zealand Army to have the bulk of its people at home to retrain them for the modernisation programme. The Army would have been very happy to leave Timor some time ago for precisely that reason, but we felt it was important as a government to continue until after independence, just to make sure that things were as secure as they could be. But from the New Zealand's Army's point of view, it really does need to get down to reconfiguring around the modernisation programme.

Media: Presumably the removal of Saddam Hussein would then necessitate some sort of peacekeeping force there……

PM: Well again a UN mandated peacekeeping force at the end of whatever might happen would be something that we could look at.

Media: Mr Goff last week………

PM: Well there wouldn't be a UN mandate without that would there. I mean the UN is expressing very considerable scepticism. It's waiting to hear evidence which would justify more than is being done to encourage Iraq to open up inspections to be done.

Media: Is New Zealand being approached or lobbied by the US, Britain or Australia about joining its actions?

PM: Not to my knowledge - no. I certainly have not been personally. I'm not aware that Mr Goff has been, not aware that Mr Burton has been.

Media: Do you think war is inevitable?

PM: No I don't. In the northern hemisphere people are only recently back from their summer vacation. I think they are taking their briefings. They are thinking about it. They are consulting a range of people, taking their case to the UN. I don't have a feel for exactly what will happen. I know there is considerable concern within the Republican ranks themselves about the way it should go and I think it's an ongoing matter, as the Speaker would say.

Media: Can you remind us what new measures the government took after 11 September?

PM: Well, you will recall that first off there were makeshift arrangements made at airports to bring in young defence force personnel so that we could do more screening and so on. The government system then went into a very detailed review of New Zealand's counter-terrorism capability. That led up to the announcement that we made at the end of January, the 30th January statement that I issued, where we announced some new spending which was to be spread across the intelligence agencies, defence, the police, customs and immigration. With respect to intelligence we improved our ability to collect and analyse and link with others. With respect to defence, there was as I recall some further work to be done on how we might respond to different sorts of weapons attacks. With respect to immigration, there was tightened border control procedures and looking at the advance passenger processing system. Customs was helped with its screening. Police was funded to have police at more airports and to have overseas liaison. So a lot of things were done in that funding package to beef up our capacity.

Media: Are you satisfied that enough was done?

PM: I'm absolutely satisfied with what we did, and I haven't had any requests for any more money to pursue any of those avenues.

Media: Will Parliament be marking 11 September?

PM: Dr Cullen as Leader of the House, and in my absence on Wednesday, will be having a Motion set down.

Media: Any progress on the setting of terms of reference and membership for the review of ERMA?

PM: Not that I've heard of in the approximately thirteen and a half hours I've been back in the country - no.

Media: Prime Minister, the media unit, I understand that two people have been put in place today, is that going to cost the taxpayer any extra money?

PM: No. It's being done from within the existing Ministerial Services budget.

Media: How are they going to manage that. Are they going to be employed…..

PM: Yes. We've been very mean with staff in Ministers offices.

Media: Are you cutting back on staff?

PM: The Associate Ministers are very very leanly staffed, the new ones - the new Associates and Under-Secretaries.

Ends.

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