1 August 2010

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"Our dairy farms".

Political rhetoric frequently employs the first person plural ( "we" and "our")  to imply a social, ethnic, local, or national community of interest.  When Green Party politicians speak of "our national parks" they are implying that the people of New Zealand have the rights and responsibilities of ownership of parklands, including the right to use and enjoy, and the responsibility to protect and maintain.   Strictly speaking the institution of the state holds title to the national parks, and the state exercises those responsibilities through its various agencies such as the Department of Conservation, but there is a common expectation that the state acts on behalf of the people, and cannot use, or dispose of the national parks in ways which conflict with the popular will.

So far so good.  But when Green Party leader Russel Norman uses the first person possessive in regards to "our dairy farms" he is misleading.  Dairy farms are privately owned. Dairy farmers do not claim to own their lands on behalf of the public, and neither they nor the state recognise any public right to use and enjoyment. The public, for their part, do not lay claim to any such rights beyond the limited controls that are established in specific pieces of legislation such as the Resource Management Act.

Norman uses the phrase "our dairy farms" in a context which is very different to that which pertains to "our national parks". The public have no real or perceived rights and responsibilities with respect to dairy farms. So is he attempting to create a perception of public rights where none currently exist, as a prelude to establishing such rights in reality?   Is he laying the groundwork for nationalisation of the dairy industry?   Some might think so. To adherents of the extreme "free-market" ideology that has dominated New Zealand political discourse over the past three decades, any restriction upon private ownership rights amounts to "nationalisation".

That would be an unreasonable conclusion in this case   There is no suggestion that Norman wants nationalisation of the dairy industry. He is advocating a specific and limited restriction upon the right of private owners to sell to foreign buyers which actually leads in the opposite direction to nationalisation.  He intends the term "our dairy farms" to imply a community of interest between the public and dairy farm owners similar to the widely perceived community of interest between the state and the public that is implied in the phrase "our national parks".

The interests of the state and of the public are not always, or even fundamentally, identical as shown by the row over the state's recent attempts to begin mining national parks.   If the interests of the state and the public can be at cross purposes, the interests of dairy farmers and the public have even less in common.  Dairy farming is a business, and dairy farmers do not subordinate their business interests to the public good.   The New Zealand  public have no rights of access to, or use, or enjoyment of dairy farms.   They pay at, or above, international market rates for dairy products.  They have no direct influence or control over the likes of Fonterra or  Crafar Farms or any of the hundreds of other individual and corporate owners of dairy farms in this country.

The actions that Norman is proposing, and the rhetoric that he is using, will help entrench New Zealand domiciled dairy farm owners as a class.  Individual dairy farm owners, such as the Crafars, may be restricted in one set of circumstances (as prospective sellers), and benefit in another (as prospective buyers).   But New Zealand farmers as a class will draw strength from restrictions upon the foreign competition for resources, and the identification of their interests with the interests of the New Zealand public, however misguided that may be.

Norman's rhetoric does not accord with the social, economic, or legal reality of farm ownership in New Zealand.   Neither is it an indication that he wishes to effect a substantial change in the system of ownership and control of farmlands.   He creates the illusion that the New Zealand public has a community of interest with institutions such as Fonterra and Crafar Farms, and that keeping ownership in their hands will benefit the public interest.   He has failed to make the case that New Zealanders as a whole are better off with people like the Crafars than they would be with Chinese farm owners.

A similar problem arises when the Green Party speaks of "our troops" in Afghanistan.  The rhetoric is designed to create a perception of public ownership of the regime's military forces, and, arising therefrom, public acceptance of the aims and conduct of the Afghan war.   This rhetoric is not only at odds with the reality;  it also conflicts with the long-term and moral interests of the New Zealand people.   The moral of the tale?  Beware of any politician who glibly invokes the first person plural.   Be aware of where your material and moral interests really lie.