'NZ Inc' messed up badly in meat blunder

The meat exports to China crisis highlights a fundamental disparity in the way different sectors are treated in New Zealand, says Bruce Wills.

The proverb "for want of a nail" has been around for centuries and reminds us very small things can have very big consequences.

In 1918, a certain Adolf Hitler was injured but not killed in battle and, for want of a few millimetres, the history of the 20th century may have turned out very differently.

The proverb neatly sums up the fiasco that has been New Zealand's handling of meat documentation for China. Something as simple as a slip-up in paperwork was enough to incur hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in costs. Having the wrong name may sound like a small matter, but try to fly internationally if your ticket does not exactly match what's in your passport.

Even TVNZ's Q+A strayed into this "meaty" topic and it was fascinating to watch former diplomat Charles Finny, journalists, a political scientist and CTU boss Helen Kelly deduce why.

Predictably, Kelly blamed it on "job cuts" while the rest focused on Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy's uncompromising handling of his ministry.

No-one asked what had happened to public service accountability. Farmers cheered on the minister for expressing emotions we all felt. We'd been ankle-tapped by our own side.

Contrast this with the fining of Milkpride for breaches of animal welfare. All of the key personnel were named and, as far as punishment is concerned, you can argue the publicity far outweighed the fine. When farmers appear in court for breaches of the Resource Management Act, they are also publicly named and held to account by newspapers and even television crews.

So what about the much lighter coverage of Wellington City Council losing more than 6.2 million litres of sewage into its harbour, or for that matter issues in neighbouring Porirua City, where its harbour's water quality has continued to decline. Are these somehow lesser matters? Yet for all of these "public" transgressions, no individual will be fingered or held to account by the courts, Campbell Live or environmental lobbyists.

Why is one section of the community held so publicly to account, yet another serving the public hides behind layers of bureaucracy or that golden excuse of a "systems failure"?

The millions of dollars in port fees up in China will take a painful bite out of returns for farmers in a hard drought- hit year where every cent matters. Yet it pales in importance when compared with the damage the meat fiasco has caused to our wider reputation. The most basic tenet of selling is that the customer is always right. My concern is that New Zealand has forgotten that but instead believes our own crusading publicity.

Earlier this year, confidence in New Zealand was rocked in China by the nitrification inhibitor DCD being found in milk powder samples. While DCDs are safe, its discovery was a bolter for the Chinese.

DCD was used here because of a New Zealand imperative to inhibit nitrates from entering water. DCD was extolled by Green Party co-leader Dr Russel Norman and even highlighted as "green tech". Government ministers at the time lauded them but at no stage were our customers asked if they shared our same obsession.

If we had asked what was truly important to them, we would have discovered words like "safe", "wholesome", "nutritious" and "trustworthy". While DCDs remain laudable, a domestic policy imperative had rushed their application only to trip our reputation up later.

The reaction to DCD's discovery should have shattered any Pax Kiwiana mentality but it didn't. In March, a shipment of New Zealand apples was held up by Russian authorities for similar export certification issues which struck later in China.

Someone should have linked up the dots here. New Zealand's Ministry for Primary Industries, the very people we trust to get the paperwork right, had changed documentation without consulting our customers. With shades of former National list MP Aaron Gilmore: "We are New Zealand; don't you know who we are?"

Both China and Russia are vast countries straddling distance and time zones. It is deeply embarrassing to have the Chinese - our very customers - telling us exactly where we got it so wrong. We are meant to be professional but instead acted like rank amateurs.

What also alarmed me was the shrill reaction of politicians and sections of the media who seem to delight in this controversy.

I understand politics is a blood sport without the blood but there was a disconcerting lack of "NZ Inc" here. The time for recrimination is after a dispute has been settled, and not right in the middle of it when what is said here is being reported in China.

We will only move forward once we understand and accept that NZ Inc messed up and messed up badly. That starts with the ministry and our public service.

Bruce Wills is president of Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

The Press