By VERNON SMALL and HELEN TUNNAH
Simmering tensions between Labour and the Greens erupted into open warfare yesterday over claims that the Government covered up an accidental release of genetically modified sweetcorn.
A furious Prime Minister Helen Clark savaged Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, author Nicky Hager and TV3, claiming she had been ambushed by the claims.
She and senior Labour ministers were caught flat-footed by allegations in Hager's book Seeds of Distrust.
Yesterday, they scrambled to reassure the public they had not allowed GM corn into the food chain.
It took the Government's spin Machine six hours to issue a rebuttal of the book's claims.
Helen Clark cancelled a trip to Whangarei to front a press conference in Auckland.
She flayed Hager and Ms Fitzsimons, accusing Hager of concocting a conspiracy theory and rejecting Ms Fitzsimons' claims that she had been surprised by details in the book.
She said Ms Fitzsimons had been well briefed in 2000 when the problem was first identified.
"I predicted correctly that the election campaign would be dirty. This is dirt without precedent."
Helen Clark also attacked TV3, accusing it of unethical and unprofessional journalism after she and presenter John Campbell squared off in a tense interview screened last night.
She said TV3 had set her up, and during the angry interview, filmed on Tuesday, she accused Campbell of ambushing her.
She is now considering whether she will appear on another TV3 leaders' debate during the election campaign and whether she should lay a formal complaint.
At her press conference yesterday, Helen Clark denied that she and other ministers covered up the release, which allowed GM corn seeds accidentally imported from the US to be grown, harvested and sold for food here and overseas.
"I am sickened at the way these allegations have been levelled at me personally and at the Government and its officials in general.
"I am going to sing from the rooftops that this is a very dirty campaign where the Greens and their supporters have descended to the gutter of the National Party."
She said it would be very hard to rebuild trust with the Greens.
She said the Government's first reaction in 2000, when it heard of a possible release of GM seeds, had been that the crop must be removed.
"Later evidence suggested strongly that there had been no such release, so no such action was taken or required to be taken."
The Government had then set standards to ensure there could be 99 per cent confidence that contamination did not exceed 0.5 per cent.
Since then the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had proposed even tighter controls, to take effect from August.
"The so-called release Mr Hager wrote about was a corn seed where there was a theoretical outside limit of a 0.04 per cent contamination, and not necessarily of GM."
The Prime Minister insisted that no GM was detected in the corn.
If it had been detected, the corn would have been uprooted and destroyed. Finance Minister Michael Cullen also attacked Ms Fitzsimons' credibility, saying she had clearly known about Hager's book in advance because it was published by Green list candidate Craig Potton.
Science and Technology Minister Pete Hodgson said Ms Fitzsimons was being "economical with the truth and that is something I had not expected".
"Jeanette Fitzsimons was briefed after the first test by [the Crown research institute] Crop & Food. She was briefed afresh about the subsequent test which disproved the suggestion of contamination, or almost disproved it down to the level of 0.04 per cent."
She had also cross-examined officials at the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification at length.
Dr Cullen said her reaction gave the public "an insider's look at how attracted to conspiracy theories the Greens have become".
She should have known Hager's book was a beat-up. "I wonder how the Greens can care so much for the planet when they seem to spend so little time on it."
Ms Fitzsimons said there was "nothing you could call a consultation" with the Government in 2000.
"I was informed by [Environment Minister] Marian [Hobbs] after all the decisions were made.
"I certainly had no idea that this political decision was made at a time when there was still the opportunity to stop corn being planted in the ground, let alone to pull up what was already there."
She said Mr Potton had not breathed a word to the Greens about the book.
"People have political affiliations and they have jobs, so I don't really see any connection."
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By VERNON SMALL and HELEN TUNNAH