Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Nats' mates put mud in the milk

Where's Judith Collins, when another Kiwi dairy company needs a little help?

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

This National Government certainly doesn't believe in picking winning industries, and that's completely consistent with the economic neoliberalism that it makes no secret of embracing.

It will supply "horizontal" support to a degree - things like research and development grants (selectively applied), apprenticeship training and high-tech help - but has so far rejected calls to outlay cash for "vertical" support - the type that would see it throw its resources behind entire, specific sectors. In other words, unless you are Rio Tinto, SkyCity, Warner Bros, Oravida, Chorus or MediaWorks, there'll be no special treatment for you, end of story.

If you are one of the aforementioned companies, the Government may even go into bat for you when your business comes a cropper, while rivals are left wondering what just happened.

Well, stuff them. There's only so much a government can do, and while certain companies may get a leg up, the Nats have made it clear that they won't be backing particular industries at the expense of anyone else.

But there's a pretty easy way to supply covert support, as we've found out. Right now, New Zealand's own a2 Milk Company is fighting to retain top place in Australia's premium milk market against some pretty concerted troublemaking by market rival Parmalat. Without wanting to openly help a2 in any way, maybe we should send Judith Collins over to have a cup of a2 milk on her way to the airport, an action that appears to apply a protective coating to both the company and the minister.

That could be a good idea, if only the company helping plot a2's demise in Australia wasn't quite such a pal of our own governing party.

The Sydney Morning Herald this week reports that Parmalat has hired pollster-lobbyist-spin doctor Crosby Textor to "discredit the science that underpins New Zealand rival a2 Milk". A whistleblower told the SMH that Crosby Textor initially hoped to get TV channels to go along with the line that a2 milk was being sold with "misleading advertising and scare tactics", but eventually got traction with some print outlets, who did Crosby Textor's bidding by calling a2 a "scam".

This was right before Parmalat relaunched its own line of lactose-free milk, aimed at much the same market segment.

Ah, Crosby Textor. The people who have helped keep senior Nats "on message", preferably with the supplementary use of a blank, glassy stare when interviewed. The people who were overseeing John Howard's campaign in 2001 when he accused refugees of throwing their babies overboard as emotional blackmail. The people behind Tony Abbott, as if anyone really wants to admit to that.

It's no surprise that Parmalat has hired the most effective PR strategists they can to win this fight, which decides who gets about 10 per cent of Australia's fresh milk market. Nothing to do with the Parmalat product competing freely and fairly on the open market, of course, and everything to do with how much money a corporation has to throw at a certain type of firm in order to win market share by embedding negative talking points in the brains of the general public.

It's a shame our government can't get behind a2, a Kiwi success story, and help this company battle the smears. Bit difficult, though, when you're open to these tactics yourself.

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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