Key cranks up kowtow with ministerial inquiry, promises China visit
By Pattrick Smellie
Aug 12 (BusinessDesk) - Prime Minister John Key is vowing to go to China as soon as he can to apologise personally for the Fonterra botulism scare, armed with the findings of a new kind of Ministerial inquiry, for which new law will be passed, possibly under parliamentary urgency next week.
Key announced at his post-Cabinet press conference that the Inquiries Bill, languishing on the Parliamentary Order Paper since a reportback from select committee in November 2009, would be used to create what will be the fourth official inquiry into the food safety scare involving high value New Zealand-sourced infant milk formula.
The bill gives Ministers the power to subpoena witnesses and papers, which current Ministerial inquiry powers do not, while avoiding the likelihood that a Royal Commission of Inquiry would take too long to allow an appropriately swift government response to Chinese government and consumer concerns.
Key said he would make a trip to China once the inquiry had reported, targeting late this year or early next.
China is New Zealand's single most important export market for dairy products, is the country's second largest trading partner by two-way trade, and enjoys a special relationship demonstrated by New Zealand being the first developed economy to sign a free trade agreement with China.
However, last week's food safety scare affecting the baby food market in a country where a one child policy prevails has rattled Chinese authorities, created commercial opportunities to improve the standing of less reputable Chinese dairy brands, and seen unprecedented Chinese criticism.
The official government news agency, Xinhua, last week mocked New Zealand's 100% Pure campaign as "a festering sore", while a political counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Wellington told TV3's The Nation that Fonterra had no more chances after three food scares since 2008.
However, Key claimed that negative Chinese media sentiment, including social media, "was turning by the latter part of last week".
Challenged on why a commission of inquiry would not be appropriate and on the need to pass new legislation to hold a Ministerial inquiry, Key said "historically, we know that a commission of inquiry will take a lot longer."
It was important for him to be able to go to China promptly and not to have the issue drift into next year, when election campaigning obligations could complicate his ability to travel, he said.
"I want to guarantee in a visit to China that this won't happen again," said Key, although he allowed that human error and criminal acts could never be completely ruled out.
"I want to give the assurance that; a) the government takes this seriously; b) the government holds people to account; and c) total confidence in the systems in place."
Ministers are understood to regard the ability to compel witnesses and documents as necessary to ensure the inquiry has credibility.
Fonterra is holding two inquires, one led by its board and the other by senior management, and the Ministry of Primary Industries is also conducting its own inquiry.