John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: We are ready to hear a big idea

Govt could do something exciting for NZ food brand

John Key need not just govern the country through a slump.  Photo / Glenn Taylor
John Key need not just govern the country through a slump. Photo / Glenn Taylor

We should let our leaders dream. When they return from lying in the sun in a summer like this one, we ought to hear what they have been thinking.

John Key retreats to Hawaii. There, his thoughts must turn to a persistent subject, the primal urge of his political life: New Zealand's economic possibilities.

Long ago, before the global financial crisis, he used to talk freely about this. When asked why he had given up a high-flying career in international finance to sit in Parliament he would answer that the economy was "under-performing" and could be "leveraged", he believed, to higher level.

Though he didn't know quite how he would do it, he was confident that he could, and his manner gave others confidence that the instincts that had made him a fortune could enrich the country too.

Polls suggest he still enjoys the nation's confidence. In the wake of the crisis no government has done better than his to manage budget deficits and debt, maintain a strong currency and resist the temptation to make economic decisions better made by investors who face personal risk.

He had to shelve higher hopes until the recession passed and business confidence returned. But it has been four years. This year he will be half-way through the normal life of a New Zealand government.

Lying on the beach at Waikiki, or wherever he goes to clear his mind of Dotcoms and other dross, the big question must come: does he really need to accept his fate to govern though a prolonged international slump, or is there something larger he could do for the country in the time remaining. If no particular project came to his mind on holiday, a hint of it was presented to him on his return.

When farm fertiliser suppliers announced last week that a pastoral chemical had been withdrawn from use because Fonterra had detected traces in its milk, the fuss in China was a reminder of how good the New Zealand food brand is, and how much better it could be.

We should be, and could be, the international gold standard of wholesome and reliable food. Maybe we already are, but if so, why was Fonterra afraid of a new milk test devised by the United States Federal Drug Administration that would find minute traces of the chemical dicyandiamide (DCD)?

It sounds nasty but it is an environmental remedy. It reduces emissions of a greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, from cow dung. It also reduces the amount of nitrogen leaching from fertilised pasture into streams and rivers, which is always exhibit A in the indictment of our "100 per cent Pure" tourism pitch.

Fonterra seems confident the minute traces that have turned up in milk are completely harmless - 100 times lower than a level acceptable under European rules, says chief executive Theo Spierings - but since there is no global standard for the stuff, it has been withdrawn.

Fonterra didn't used to wave the white flag like this. Under Spierings it has become too sensitive to criticism and too fond of public relations that recommends giving free milk to schoolkids who probably won't drink it. The DCD announcement did nothing for us, attracting the attention of the Wall St Journal and inspiring lines like "New Zealand milk is poisonous" in China's press.

You don't survive these challenges with public relations campaigns or diplomacy in high places, you survive them by being right. If the country's standards are truly impeccable and it stands by them, it will be proven right often enough.

But that level of confidence is just a byproduct of the national wealth we could gain from broadening the New Zealand food brand to premium consumer products.

We have been having this dream of course for the past 50 or 60 years. For nearly 30 of those years we have been waiting for market signals to tell private investors there are profits to be made from refining our raw food and fibre. Not enough has happened.

Private investors have found more security in real estate and recent experience has not changed their minds.

Governments, meanwhile, have remained careful to minimise their influence. National's investments have been confined to faster broadband, information technology ventures and hobbits.

But every country fancies its prospects on the web and many others offer incentives to be a film set. The best dreams are built on realism. Our blessings are rainfall, grass, blue skies, remote beauty and fresh air.

Government in a market economy can safely invest in the national brand. It does not need to favour anyone, it can police the country's reputation, finance the learning and laboratories that command worldwide respect, and ensure the best global food producers want to have a presence here.

Dream it may be, but we could do it.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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