Lofty views obscuring real detail

I had pictured a small, poorly paid person with a dirty rag, in grubby overalls, quietly wrecking the country's economy while the bigwigs in head office talked about "targets" and "vision".

Then it turned out to be not exactly a person, but a dirty pipe at fault. In online guff about Fonterra the word "vision" leaps out, as if to claim that a spiritual awakening lies behind the time-honoured business of growing grass to feed cows to make milk to make money.

Yet somehow, botulism got into a pipe, because despite all that vision, nobody looked, and the vocabulary has changed. If I were the lowest-paid Fonterra staff member I think I would laugh.

As of last year, 26 Fonterra employees were earning more than $1 million each; the previous chief executive took an $8.2m golden handshake; and yet a bacterium has humbled them.

This has made Westpac look daft, too, for so recently predicting that 2013-14 would be a bumper dairy season, set to boost the economy by $3 billion-$4b.

As if, as of now. And – so help me – because of something so seemingly small.

I wonder about the wisdom of relying heavily on one business – dairying – for which we're sacrificing our environment even as we benefit from (until this week) handsome profits. Currently, 92,000 New Zealanders drink dirty water, compared with 72,000 two years ago, which was bad enough. The reason is bound to be linked to our 6.4 million dairy cattle, more than twice as many as 24 years ago, all of them producing cowpats, and many of them near waterways. We allow this, and farmers argue the toss, because cows make so very, very much money, which makes polluted water very, very worth it – until something bad happens. That's the way we do things. Think Pike River and leaky homes.

Well, other bad things have happened this year. Zespri, the monopoly in charge of kiwifruit, has taken a blow to its reputation over running a dual invoicing system on fruit entering China, involving the Chinese being given an invoice that didn't reflect the true value of the imports. Zespri's China subsidiary, an employee of the subsidiary, and an importer were all convicted in Shanghai for underpaying import duties, and the Chinese government is after millions of dollars in compensation. Zespri's global president of sales and marketing, incidentally, reportedly earned NZ$1.4m a year up until he left the company.

The company initially denied all knowledge of the double invoicing problem, but it emerged that staff (doubtless on ordinary levels of pay) had tried to warn senior managers (doubtless earning lots of money) about the dubious practice for years. It had also been discussed at board level.

There is more: The Ministry for Primary Industries is to increase the number of staff it has working with China, after admitting it made mistakes when New Zealand meat exports – remember? – were held up at the Chinese border in May. There'd been a change in the system of documentation that officials here had thought wouldn't matter. Or did they think?

Obviously I am not a businessperson, because right at the outset I would not see any good side to polluting our waterways. Half of our most popular river spots were last year rated too polluted to use safely, in part because of faecal contamination in this much-vaunted clean, green country.

Possibly you need to be paid a fabulously high salary to think double invoicing would never land you in trouble, and quite possibly I would need advanced qualifications to imagine that changing the form of documents would definitely not trigger an exporting problem with a major – even crucial – foreign market.

I guess there will be no admitted connection here with the slashing of the former diplomatic service, wrecking morale and losing experienced staff in one of those endless restructurings that seem to make such busy work for idle hands to do. It was diplomats' responsibility, in former times, to be expert in such seemingly trivial, yet potentially disastrous matters, but I guess someone else on $1m a year lost sight of that. I picture a sleek, fresh-faced 20-something business graduate, with a very clean handkerchief.

The Dominion Post