Politics Labour’s Green Crunch

As political management issues stack up, they don’t come much more challenging than genetic modification (GM). This is crunch month because the moratorium on applications for release ends on October 27.
The Government says it must keep the GM door open because if this country has any comparative research advantage it is in the biosciences and GM is an integral part.
However, it must simultaneously reassure those who fear for their health and avoid our food exports being blacklisted by nervous foreigners.
Its solution: on the one hand, complex regulatory regime that is so restrictive some, perhaps many, scientists and private investors give up; on the other, provision for conditional release and easier access to low-risk GM organisms for experiments that infuriate the anti-GM lobby.
One political rule of thumb holds that if no one is satisfied you have probably got it right. That’s where this Government thinks it is. The Greens on the other hand, hope that win-win is actually lose-lose, turning everybody off. They hope the Government will realise this, take fright and extend the moratorium.
They are mistaken. Why, then, do they persist? Because to the Greens GM is not simply matter of principle. It’s about the future of the human race and avoiding this critical one wrong step. They believe they are saving humanity.
This is incomprehensible to professional politicians in the other parties. They say politics is the art of the possible and positions should be adjusted in the light of reality.
The Labour party’s professionals also reckon that once the GM cat is out of the bag, the absolutist position collapses.
But at the earliest that will be when the Environmental Risk Management Authority rules on an application – perhaps year from now – and arguably only when there is an actual release, which might be close to the 2005 election.
The Greens say the fight will continue right up to that point and they will lead it.
So what? The Greens have nine seats. With the partial exception of the Progressive Coalition (two seats), no other party shares their GM stance.
And though the Greens are critical to passing social, workplace, constitutional and environmental legislation at the core of the Government’s programme, they will, they say, treat those items on their merits regardless of GM.
So surely they can be ignored on GM.
Not exactly.
First, public opinion on GM has moved in the Greens’ favour over the past year and might move still further.
While the polling evidence from the 2002 election suggested that fear of GM did not play much part in actual voting decisions – and probably still doesn’t – the Government can’t be sure that will still be so in 2005 if the Greens keep GM high-profile and stir up fears.
Second, after the next election the Government may need the Greens for majority if United Future fades and Labour can’t make up the slack.
Labour can, of course, do deal with the Greens in that event – especially if the GM cat is out of the bag, making it pointless for the Greens to make that sticking point, as in 2002.
By 2005 the Greens will want to be in the government because only so much is achievable from outside. They admit they can advance their programme only if Labour, which is mildly sympathetic to many of their aims, is the government.
Labour would rather not have the Greens right inside the tent. But if the two are continually, or even sporadically, at war over the next two years, voters will see that as disunity and reduce Labour’s support, making it more likely Labour is forced into the Greens’ arms.
So what does Labour do?
It can cuddle up to United Future in the hope of keeping that party’s vote up. But even if it succeeds it may not be enough, especially if slower economy and other normal second-term wear and tear erodes Labour’s support. Many in Labour’s rank and file – and many of its voters – are closer to the Greens on GM than to United Future on moral, social and economic issues.
Saying “tough” might not be enough. Once the Government is through this noisy month, it will still have much massaging to do. M

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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