A Tale Of Two Commissions
Public inquiries into controversial technology have a mixed history in New Zealand. Having proposed in 1973 a public investigation of nuclear power, I was then sufficiently encouraged by the proceedings of the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power that in 1977 I put forward a similar idea regarding the then nascent recombinant-DNA technology - commonly called genetic engineering (GE) - for splicing genes from unrelated organisms & viruses to create novel organisms that could not come to exist naturally.
The NZ Association of Scientists promoted this proposal for a full public inquiry; but GE enthusiasts had a few keen allies in Parliament, notably Bill Sutton (Jim's brother), and GE evaded public scrutiny.
Two decades later, the Labour party promised to set up, within 100 days of being elected, a Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. This promise was broken as the then Minister for the Environment Ms Marian Hobbs (who had not claimed any environmental interests, on the Labour website during the election campaign) negotiated secretly with who knows whom.
The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was finally established on 8 May 2000: long-serving Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, Jean Fleming Ph.D, Jacqueline Allan M.B, and the Rt Rev Richard Randerson. It thus turns out that a gene-tamperer is on it, but no scientist suspected of harbouring reservations about GM. A pro-GE staffer, Ms Beale, was transferred to the RCGM staff from the ERMA - the Environmental Risk Management Authority, which in 23 decisions on GM field trials has issued 23 approvals. The Commission refused to accord any individuals status as legal persons to participate in its hearings; this exclusion restricted the supply of informed cross-examination.
Most shockingly, oaths have not been required. Witnesses were not under threat of gaoling for perjury if they lie; neither were they privileged from defamation suits for what they say on the "witness" stand. Thus the main reasons for setting up a Royal Commission, as opposed to less formal inquiries, are quietly flagged away for no apparent reason. The Commission was severely handicapped in its ability to get at the truth. Who decided on this inferior approach?
Instead, time & money were allocated to 14 informal meetings - a flak-catching process which the Commission had little duty to take notice of. Members of the public were given 3min to express themselves. A great deal of time-wasting repetition is inevitable in such a process, while the 'formal' hearings had time only to skim lightly over the scientific details which are the basis for grave concerns over some types of GM (as can be seen at http://www.psrast.org).
Their very first hearing was a secret ceremony for Maoris only (at Ohinemutu). In depressingly predictable PC trendiness, the RCGM also organised 25 informal Maori meetings. As a result, their 'formal' hearings were severely curtailed so that some important questions have not been permitted in cross-examination because of "lack of time". Experts Arpad Pusztai & Stanley Ewen from Aberdeen - among the world's few experimenters testing GM food - were granted only 20 min each to present their findings. This extreme restriction must be contrasted with the enormous amounts of time allocated to the extensive informal public meetings from Bluff to Whangarei, and the even more numerous special Maori meetings.
The Commission procured special briefing papers early on, which were not available for criticism. When later put on the RCGM website they turned out to contain falsehoods, which was no great surprise in view of the known attitudes of the selected authors.
The Commission's advisory counsel, Brendan Brown QC, repeatedly failed to acknowledge written inquiries and was later quietly replaced for no stated reason.
The Commission's website ( http://www.gmcommission.govt.nz) has been unsatisfactory in some ways. Their 'logo', a Maorified double helix, cost me 20ç to receive - sent to me by the Commission staff unsolicited - as it took 20min to download (it's a 7MB M$W file). What it cost as a fee to some consultant has yet to be revealed. Submissions critical of gene-tampering have not been made so readily available on the RCGM website as those repetitively promoting it. Both longer examples such as mine and some important very brief examples have been suppressed.
Some inquirers have found the Commission staff unhelpful and even rude. Complaints to the ostensible staff chief evoked no action. Ms Beale returned to the ERMA in early February, but not before a lot of harm had been done to the Commission's effectiveness and credibility.
The media did not report the hearings much. Of the tiny time given to such reporting, most was frittered away on prior announcements of a general nature and then bland outlines of what witnesses talked about, rather than attempts to report the significance of evidence or the impact of such cross-examination as was permitted.
The large fraction of the RCGM time given over to informal talk is still more regrettable when one realises that even the "formal" hearings were conducted without benefit of oaths. It is not clear whose big idea it was to abolish the potential for prosecuting liars. The Royal Commission on Nuclear Power, chaired by former president of the Court of Appeal Sir Thaddeus McCarthy, required oaths; very few lies were told in its hearings. Let us pause to honour this famous judge who recently died at 94.
A further difficulty for the public is that the chairman's promise in his opening statement (Wellington, 7 Aug 2000) to conduct formal hearings in Christchurch and Auckland was soon cancelled. The obvious result would be to increase difficulties and expenses for would-be participants who live far from the capital. Under pressure he conducted a couple of short-notice sessions in Auckland, and then on very short notice in Christchurch.
The government allocated for the RCGM nearly $5M, later augmented; but no help was made available to any public-interest groups. Lately the Commission showed signs of difficulty in getting rid of all this money: they announced 20 free youth trips to Wellington, selected on the basis of children's 500-word responses to the essay topic "What future does genetic modification have in New Zealand?" - forecasting, rather than moral assessment.
The Commission was initially required to report by 1-6-01and used this as an excuse to insist that some speakers must be cramped for time. However, the Prime Minister's formal statement in Parliament on 13-2-01 said not 'June' but 'this year', which was a hint that an extension was to be given as had been openly offered by Ms Hobbs and was of course later done (to the end of July).
The extra time was, so far as one can see, mainly used for the commission's private deliberations and writing. What else could be done with extra time? One threat was that the Commission would permit lawyers for the GM trade to lodge 'rebuttal evidence' which would not be subject to cross-examination. These lawyers had to a considerable extent declined to cross-examine the main experts called by critics of GM; but then they tried to bring in assertions contradicting them, insulated from testing. Instead of being argued in a public hearing and reported, this unjust concept was the subject of more private negotiation. That a former Chief Justice would contemplate such a procedure is unaccountable.
This is all very disappointing compared with the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power.
One obvious difference is that the two decades in between have allowed hundreds of people in NZ to get money (at least $120M in public funding) from gene-tampering, or hope to do so from investment, whereas very few had any financial reason to promote nuclear power before Sir Thaddeus's inquiry in effect stopped the NZ Electricity Dept's nuclear programme.
Also one must acknowledge the sordid burgeoning of the depraved trade of commercial propaganda during the 1980s and 1990s, with the result that today almost every significant utterance from the GM-promoters has been 'spinned' by mercenary deceivers. These PR agents have become much bolder, even lying to the RCGM, whereas the manufacturers of nuclear reactors left the promotional role at the RCNP hearings to the local advocates (NZED and parts of the DSIR).
A further handicap is the ascendancy of wimminsLib as a political ideology. Attention-craving wimminsLib politicians, notably Bunkle and Kedgley, have been put to the fore by the media, especially Fiona Hill on Radio NZ, giving the public distorted information because these politicians lack the understanding of the topic which is needed to convey a balanced account. Thus, discussion of a main threat to the biosphere is hampered by the dominant ideology of WimminsLib. Of course, anyone who has the hardihood to point out that these empresses lack clothes is routinely accused of being anti-women.
The dismal contrast between the two Royal Commissions shows that the notion of a full independent public inquiry has been drastically degraded. If the committees of Parliament had been greatly strengthened meanwhile, this would not be so worrying.
Gene-tampering has, to date, killed only a hundred or so people and maimed only a few thousand, so far as we yet know. But it has enormously greater potential than that to harm humans and ecosystems. Like nuclear power, it has become a technological and financial fad. How will it be brought under control?
One confusion I hope we can see through is the contention of defeatist fumer C Wheeler, former president of the NZ Soil & Health Association, who says we have lost our opportunity to show the world an example of keeping gene-jiggered organisms out of the environment. The RCGM's recommendations do not change anything real; they are the start, not the end, of a democratic process in which citizens should be at their MPs as never before. I for one disagree that we have lost.
- AUTHOR NOTE: Dr Mann, a biochemist, was the University of Auckland's first (& last) Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies. He served for its first dozen years on the Toxic Substances Board advising successive New Zealand ministers of health on poisons.