Hard News by Russell Brown


What I'd really like to know

I had a grump yesterday at Vernon Small for declaring that the Speaker's Tour would "overshadow" the announcement yesterday of a $700 million research fund for the food and pastoral sectors. An annual MPs' junket is bigger news than a step-change in support for innovation in industries that will, literally, feed our children? Really?

I was wrong, of course. The story led One News last night, and is all over the place this morning, with the Herald's editorial column, in keeping with it recent fondness for lurid language, declaring it "turns the stomach".

You could be forgiven for thinking the Speaker's Tour exists principally as an annual opportunity for set-piece media outrage, to flare briefly and then be forgotten until the next year's Speaker's Tour.

In 2001, the angle was that the perkbuster himself, Rodney Hide, was on the trip to South America; Speaker Jonathan Hunt refused to release the itinerary and the press dubbed it the "Tango Tour", because, um, the delegation watched a demonstration of the tango in Buenos Aires. In 2002, the scandal was 'MPs snub own airline for Qantas'. Last year, it was that so many MPs would be overseas during the April recess.

It's clear enough that some indignation is due over this year's trip, because four of the five MPs travelling to Eastern Europe are retiring at the election and the fifth, Peter Brown, might be lucky to be returned by the voters.

Claire Trevett's story for the Herald does distinguish itself by listing the people the delegation will be meeting: the Prime Minister and President of Poland, the Speakers of the Czech and Hungarian assemblies, our ambassadors, etc. In principle, this isn't a bad thing. Even in the networked world, there is no substitute for actually meeting people face-to-face -- but that benefit should surely be extended to MPs in a position to act on it. And seriously, is it wise to send Brian Connell anywhere?

Perhaps the most interesting part was observing the response of the various parties. Helen Clark had a carefully-honed response, Katherine Rich was relaxed and willing to discuss the matter, John Key disclaimed all responsibility -- and Marian Hobbs completely blew it and had to go to ground.

I'd wait for the gallery journalists to raise a hue and cry at the time it might count -- that is, when the next annual $100,000 budget (the same as in 2002, by the way) is approved -- but I fear I'd be waiting a long time.

Anyway, if, as most people seem to agree, the $700m NZ Fast Forward fund is such an important step for a crucial sector, where is the expertise? NZPA did a good job in the hours after the announcement yesterday, but If it's such a no-brainer, where are the morning-after stories that demonstrate the depth of knowledge amongst our major media organisations?

The most interesting element, to me, is the identification of "sustainable pastoral systems" as one of the four key areas of research. This not only puts some real money behind the theme of sustainability that has characterised under our science and research philosophy for the past few years, it addresses a screaming need to find ways to enjoy the current dairy bounty without exhausting all our clean water, and to try and curb our pastoral greenhouse gas problem. And the focus on value-added food products seems to support Fonterra's approach of tailoring food products to the needs of new markets.

But I have questions. What are the most promising areas of research? What products are pending? Which private-sector companies are most likely to pony up matching funds? Who will own the intellectual property in the killer products we want to create? Why has forestry been specifically left out? Aren't biomaterials very important too? Do we need another one of these funds? What about basic research? And why does the fund have such a terrible name?

I know we have quite a few scientists reading here, and a smaller number who post in our forums. I'd be very grateful if you could all venture some comment, so the readers and I could read perspectives we're not finding elsewhere today.

PS: If you want a demonstration of the merits of actual sector knowledge in commentary, you could do worse than Fran O'Sullivan's column on the Auckland Airport wrangle today. Her indignant response on Sunday to an Independent story ("For many years the financial paper used to make a practice of trying to undermine other business journalists' stories when it had been scooped") is quite bracing too.

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