Coming a cropper, why Helen Clark has only herself to blame

Helen Clark has tried again to present herself as the victim in the contaminated corn crop issue. But, this time, she is partly correct.

Previous attempts have looked like blatant political diversions: angrily attacking John Campbell, claiming my book was a Green Party plot and attacking Jeanette Fitzsimons for chairing a select committee inquiry that Helen Clark herself had suggested be held.

Then last week Clark suggested that she is a “victim of [her] own success as a popular and competent prime minister”. This sounded a bit conceited but I think it is basically true.

If former National cabinet minister Ruth Richardson invited big business people into private policy meetings, who would have been surprised? If Bill Birch quietly changed the rules to avoid a sticky issue, who would have been shocked? The public expected the last National government to be secretive and ignore public opinion and that’s why they voted it out. When Clark is a “victim” of her good reputation it is precisely because people expect her to be better_much better_than the last lot.

It’s the same for Tony Blair in Britain. Both came to power after a long period of arrogant, undemocratic government, promising to rebuild social institutions and restore trust in democracy.

Instead Blair has run a government of expediency and spin doctoring_and Clark has used his “success” as a role model. If these leaders now find themselves victims of high public expectations, that’s how it should be.

These are the issues my book Seeds of Distrust is about. It isn’t about genetic engineering. The book is essentially about open government, using the corn story to discuss what can go wrong when government is run in a closed and secretive way.

What happened? When suspected GM contaminated corn crops were discovered in November 2000, the very companies responsible (and legally liable) for the crops were invited into the government decision-making meetings. From the first meeting they lobbied that a little contamination wouldn’t do any harm and said the government should set a “tolerance level” for contamination.

There was never confusion on this proposal, as some have claimed, but there was internal disagreement. Erma and MAF backed the companies’ proposal, while the Environment Ministry argued that a tolerance level was illegal. According to internal documents, the two sides agreed on December 1 that “those higher up” should decide. It was Mark Prebble_the PM’s head official who had been chairing all the key meetings_who made this decision.

December 4 minutes record: “Mark Prebble on Friday/weekend comes to conclusion that zero acceptance is not achievable.” He instructed that a “tolerance [set at] 0.5% will achieve a level of protection”. There is no record of whether Helen Clark approved this. On December 5 Erma scientist Donald Hannah evaluated the suspect corn against the newly agreed threshold and concluded it had “less than 0.5% GM contamination and hence, judged by that standard, does not contain new organism”. The following day Erma head Bas Walker reported to Prebble that there was “no case for destroying the grain or the crops”, noting that “all of this however hangs on the acceptability of the 0.5% tolerance level”.

Could it be clearer? Yet everyone involved, from Clark down, has vehemently denied that they used a tolerance level to define the contamination problem conveniently out of existence.

In May 2001, the tolerance level was abandoned, after more officials argued that it was illegal. Official Ruth Wilkie told Clark that “there is a change of approach from that proposed in December last year (which proposed a defined level of tolerance). Now . . . any positive result will mean that the seed lot is rejected.”

By then the corn had been processed and sold, but the government had avoided a controversy about contaminated food during the GM Royal Commission. Great care had been taken, on Clark’s instructions, to hide the whole incident from the public. If I hadn’t been leaked a pile of documents by people involved, it would still be secret today.

The obvious decision in December 2000 was to destroy the crops (as they’ve done with two lots since the last election), publicise the decision and so build public confidence in government processes. The obvious decision now is simply to concede that they got it wrong. Denying, evading and lashing out is a bad choice for a popular and competent prime minister.

Mark Prebble’s final acts in the corn affair have been ordering his staff that no documents from their office be released and then telling the select committee inquiry he played no significant part in the crisis. Again the core issues are about open government. The public has a right to expect better. Prebble should accept responsibility for his role and resign.