I felt some trepidation recently as I waited for Marian Hobbs's comment on the Christchurch sabotage of genetically-modified potatoes. Would she temporize? Or fudge? I view Labour's occasional dependence on the Green Party's votes with unease, regarding it as one of the more egregious requirements of the MMP system we endure. I feared the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when the minister denounced the destruction of Dr Margy Gilpin's work as "senseless vandalism".
Helen Clark's government has handled the GE issue with finesse. Labour campaigned in 1999 on a promise to hold a Royal Commission of Inquiry. Careful thought and negotiation went into selecting the personnel for the commission. It became a lengthy and costly process as commissioners listened attentively to all points of view. They carefully weighed the general unease amongst us as we contemplated some of the scarier possibilities of genetic modification. Their report suggested a regime that would balance the need for scientific advancement through field trials with the public's trepidation. Sir Thomas Eichelbaum's recommendations in July last year were considered by ministers, and the Government's pragmatic response came three months later. Nothing was rushed. Negotiations with Maori and environmentalists had taken place. In the end both the commission's report and the Government's response commanded cautious respect in Parliament and acceptance from the wider community. As you can gather, I'm no fan of MMP, but this was a text-book example of the way in which policy is meant to be developed under that system.
From the beginning, however, there were signs of trouble to come. In the parliamentary debate following the report, the Green's co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons made the preposterous claim that the commission's recommendations "throw caution to the winds". She derided its suggestion that the public be given freedom of choice with GM foods, and deplored scientific field trials, despite the careful monitoring process before they take place. Sue Bradford later told us the Greens were determined to keep genetically modified organisms "out of the water, the air, and the earth". There followed a series of disingenuous comments from Green MPs when pressed about their attitude to any unilateral acts of sabotage that might be perpetrated by fringe elements. *** I'm left wondering how much some of them now know about the recent crop destruction, despite Ms Fitzsimons' and Nandor Tanczos' declarations a few days later.
The attack on potato plants was itself carefully engineered. It required considerable inside information, and it took place while the Police force was stretched to the limit because of a curiously timely, anonymous threat to the golf tournament starring Tiger Woods. *** When journalists went looking for Green comments about the Christchurch crime, they were strangely hard to get. Sue Kedgley and Keith Locke who cultivate the media, and approach all issues with open mouths, were nowhere to be heard. Mr Tanczos, their appealingly guileless colleague, did front. But he refused to condemn the attack, observing that direct action was justified where a small group's "legitimate grievances" were not being addressed. He warned of more such attacks. Ms Fitzsimons later tried to put the Greens on the right side of the law, but she fudged. The inference we can draw is that in some circumstances criminals will enjoy open support from some Greens. Unlike the rest of us, we must understand, they answer to a higher force, unfettered by the legal processes we pay them to uphold.
Protest has an honourable tradition. Many of us wore out shoe leather in Hiroshima Day and anti-Vietnam war marches, and against Springbok tours. I incurred the wrath of Prime Minister Norman Kirk when, as a newly-elected MP, I was photographed holding an anti-Vietnam war placard at the end of 1972. In the end the public gradually came round to those causes. They won on their merits. But they could so easily have been de-railed by fringe crazies. Fanatics who scattered broken glass on a football field in 1981 did us no good. Parliamentarians, and virtually every outside sympathiser, knew that criminal acts were beyond the pale, and negated reasoned, non-violent protest.
I am waiting to see whether all Green MPs finally and unequivocally disassociate themselves from those fringe groups who thumb their noses at the law and common sense. When we recall recent acts of global terrorism, is there any reason why eco terrorists shouldn't be treated as a down-market version of Al Qaeda? Did the proponents of MMP actually intend that we should mainstream people with no respect for the law they are pledged to uphold? Labour seems likely to be the biggest party after the November election. Is it in democracy's best interests that Helen Clark might have to depend even more on those who condone violence? Let's hope there are more Labourites with Marian Hobbs' courage.
Historian and former cabinet minister, Michael Bassett has written many books about New Zealand politics.