Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On the government’s latest handout to agri-business

May 10th, 2011

agribusiness subsidy cash cow, Illustration by Tim Denee
Illustration by Tim Denee –

Given the bumper earnings from commodity prices, you might think agriculture would be the last sector in need of a government handout – but no, at yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference, John Key, Nick Smith and David Carter unveiled a series of irrigation scheme handouts for farmers and agribusiness. This largesse will include a $35 million “accelerated investment” fund over the next five years, rising to a possible $400 million fund for irrigation scheme investment by the government where taxpayers would be excluded – but of course ! – from owning or accessing the commercial benefits from the investment they will have so generously seeded.

Talk about picking winners, corporate welfare etc etc. (Not a peep from the Act Party and its new leader so far on this violation of their core principles.) As for National, these irrigation funds are but the latest is in a grand old tradition of handouts and subsidies for farmers stretching back to the SMPs of the Muldoon era. Over at The Standard, the latest moves are being placed in the context of China’s wider long term interests in gaining a controlling stake in New Zealand natural resources.

Yesterday, Nick Smith was at pains to put the irrigation plans – and the inevitable intensification of NZ farming practices and land use that they herald – in the context of a related ‘contestable’ freshwater cleanup fund, and enhanced standards for water purity and minimal flows. Because, as Smith conceded, “unless we do it right, it [farming intensification] can lead to environmental degradation.”

You bet. The trouble is, as Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman quickly pointed out, Smith has actually gutted the process for clean water standards proposed in the draft National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS)

Nick Smith has removed the provision from the draft NPS which requires a resource consent, as a discretionary activity, for land use intensification. This is despite the fact that nearly every report on water quality identifies land use intensification as the main cause of water quality decline in New Zealand,” Dr Norman said.

For example, a 2010 article by the National Institute on Water and Atmosphere says that our declining river water quality is undoubtedly associated with the intensification of pastoral farming and the conversion of drystock farmland to dairy farming, particularly in Waikato, Southland, and Canterbury. “Despite the evidence, Nick Smith has taken out provisions that will force regional councils to regulate land use intensification,” said Dr Norman.

“The Government has not only disregarded the recommendations of the [expert] Board of Inquiry, it has also disregarded the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum which comprises 58 diverse stakeholder groups. The Forum recommended that the draft NPS be adopted quickly, and with only minor changes, that would not undermine its strength. “What constituency is the Government serving by undermining their own experts and stakeholders and pulling the teeth from the NPS?

Why, agribusiness of course.


The Decider, and the Writer Down

Years ago, in his famous speech to the White House correspondents dinner satirist Stephen Colbert defined the relationship between government and journalism. Those in power decide: and the media simply writes it down. That’s how it works. Journalism is the art of transcribing the words of the powerful. This morning’s Herald editorial provides a telling example of the art of transcription.

At yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference, the Prime Minister had sought to deflect criticism of his $275,000 refurbishment of Premier House – this, at a time when budgets for services to the public are either are being frozen or scaled back. Key argued that (a) it was “hardly lavish” to maintain an asset that hadn’t been repainted in eleven years and (b) such trifles were to be taken as a sign that Labour couldn’t make headway on more important issues : “Labour knows that unemployment was falling, cancer waiting lists are falling, crime rates are falling, We created 30,000 jobs in the first quarter of this year. Labour doesn’t want to talk about interest rates being at an all time low….”

Blimey. So everything is going swimmingly. Who knew? Apparently, only the small-minded and envious feel bothered by evidence that our leaders are not deferring their own comforts, or practicing the thrift they argue is so essential for the rest of us. The Herald’s editorialist agrees wholeheartedly: “Labour seems to think the public begrudges John Key the usual trappings of office.” Of course they don’t ! Under the headline “Labour energy better directed to the Budget” the newspaper channels Key’s “let them eat cake’ sentiments into print:

Premier House in Wellington, where Prime Ministers can live and entertain, is being repainted and recarpeted at a cost of $275,000. Mr Key says it had not been repainted for 11 years. He says he is happy to accept any scrutiny he is put under but wonders why Labour is raising such trivial issues. He is not alone…..Against a Prime Minister whose popularity is on the wane, this sort of pitch might work….. It is only likely to rebound on the Opposition, showing it to be miserable, mean-spirited and out of tune with the country’s mood.

Oddly enough, the Herald’s own – albeit unscientific – online readers’ poll shows respondents as being almost equally divided about the merits of the Premier House revamp.


Fast Food Employment Hell

The welfare reforms that the government has signalled as a second term priority will have the effect of forcing beneficiaries into accepting virtually any “reasonable” job offer that comes their way. For a salutary glimpse into just how hellish some of those jobs can be, I heartily recommend this brilliantly written US Business Week article into the production line work practices at such fast food industry outlets as Taco Bell.

For starters, the language used onsite is pretty instructive. Workers are called Food Champions or Service Champions, subdivided into Steamers, Stuffers and Expeditors. Every word they utter, every hand movement they make, every folding action and footstep between counter and grill has been scripted and measured to serve the 164 second target between when the car arrives at the ordering station and when it pulls away from the pick-up window. For example:

The back of the restaurant has been engineered so that the Steamers, Stuffers, and Expeditors…take as few footsteps as possible during a shift. There are three prep areas: the hot holding area, the cold holding area, and the wrapping expediting area. The Stuffer in the hot holding area stuffs the meat into the tortillas, ladling beef with Taco Bell’s proprietary tool, the BPT, or beef portioning tool. The steps for scooping the beef have been broken down into another acronym, SST, for stir, scoop, and tap. Flour tortillas must be cooked on one side for 15 seconds and the other for five…. The real challenge is the wrapping. Taco Bell once had 13 different wrappers for its products. That has been cut to six by labeling the corners of each wrapper differently. The paper, designed to slide off a stack in single sheets, has to be angled with the name of the item being made at the upper corner. The tortilla is placed in the middle of the paper and the item assembled from there until you fold the whole thing up in the wrapping expediting area next to the grill. The best Food Champions can prepare about 100 burritos, tacos, chalupas, and gorditas in less than half an hour, and they have the 78-item menu memorized.

Speed and accuracy are the catchwords for an industry expected to do $168 billion in sales for 2011, with about 70 percent of that coming in through the drive-thru windows.

Above me on the wall, a flat-screen display shows the average time of the last five cars at either the order station or the pick-up window, depending on which is slowest. If the number is red, as it is now, that means one, or both, of the waits is exceeding 50 seconds, the target during peak periods. It now shows 53 seconds, on its way to 60, 70 … and then I stop looking. The high-pitched ding that announces each new customer becomes steady, unrelenting, and dispiriting—85 cars will roll through over the peak lunch rush. And I keep blowing the order script.

It’s as if the great advances of human civilization, in everything from animal husbandry to mathematics to architecture to manufacturing to information technology, have all crescendoed with the Crunchwrap Supreme, delivered via the pick-up window.

For the skill and sweat needed to survive in this modern slave galley, the hourly pay is just above the minimum wage.


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    1. 10 Responses to “On the government’s latest handout to agri-business”

    2. By lyndon on May 10, 2011 | Reply

      Just on the subject of Key’s big-issues-Labour are missing…

      Unemployment “fell by 0.1 percentage points to 6.6 percent in the March 2011 quarter” in a series that I think he called ‘notoriously volatile’ last week.

      “Crime rates are falling” – reported crime in 2010 was down on 2009, when it was the highest it had been since, well, last time National was in power, but neither seem an especially significant change over previous years.

      It’s not that he’s wrong or that one couldn’t throw related stats around all day, but it’s not what I’d call open and shut.

    3. By martin on May 10, 2011 | Reply

      Also extremely galling considering the cutbacks in investment in superannuation, Kiwisaver and education.

      Our educations are assets and ECE is an extremely valuable investment.

      Key’s priorities in investment- My house over your superannuation or education.

    4. By Ed on May 10, 2011 | Reply

      Reported crime is largely down due to a change in the basis of reporting. Multiple charges are now counted as one – but National and the media are not talking about that.

      Unemployment has increased at the same time as Australia’s rate has gone down – with our rate being particularly high for young people, and with worryingly high rates of longer term unemployment.

      Median earnings are down in dollar terms – no wonder people are hurting and food banks are running out of food.

      All of these are issues being raised by Labour and Green – was anyone listening?

    5. By Peter on May 10, 2011 | Reply

      On your surprise at how Taco Bell uses the methods described to ensure a standardised product is brought to its customers fast enough to satisfy their demands. Operational Research methods have been used to improve efficiency for more than 50 years across all sorts of industry, including newspapers and television ( though it may not look very evident in the case of our nationalised channel when there is a wedding to cover). The alternative management approach is to let all the outlets do their own thing, but sure as eggs is eggs, the business will fail to more efficient competitors. You may discover that Taco Bell customers keep coming back because they know exactly what they will get and when. You may not like eating out in this way, but millions do. McDonald’s pioneered lots of the fast food retailing methods, Burger King too and you would find most high street retailers -supermarkets to fashion – all use similar techniques which keep prices low. It is why the independent catering or retail business cannot compete in certain product areas.

    6. By Sean on May 10, 2011 | Reply

      Good points about John Key’s ‘good news’ Lyndon.

      To your point about the Crime Stats ‘Falling’ I would like to link to this article in the Sunday Star times.

      …it also involved more use of “representative charging”. Previously, a fraudster who made 30 transactions on a stolen credit card would face 30 charges, but now he or she would face only one, with all the counts listed in an attached schedule.

    7. By lyndon on May 10, 2011 | Reply

      Thanks Sean – I just did some mildly strenuous googling to get to that article (via The Standard) when I could have just reloaded.

    8. By kerry on May 10, 2011 | Reply

      Another excellent article, Gordon.

      Between us, my daughter and I have worked in food service at a number of venues around this city and the rest of NZ. She, being younger, has had more experience with fast-food chains and mall outlets as employers. All of those places rip off some form of the McDo’s template, to a greater or lesser degree. She still looks back slightly wistfully to the period in her 7th form year when she worked for a privately-owned mexican restaurant in Newtown, Wellington, where she was paid above minimum wage, and fed a reasonable meal when her shift was over.
      For most young people, it’s work at the lowest pay legal, and then go home hungry.
      My experience slightly higher up the food service chain wasn’t much better paid, but I was working in functions catering, not fast-food, and the staff meals were definitely better when you’re working a wedding or corporate xmas function.

      The major difference in the USA, even within the same branded franchise, is that there is so much subsidy to farmers to grow certain crops (wheat, corn, soybeans) that fast-food manufacturers get their raw materials at extremely low cost. This flows into the pricing scale for fast food, which is why it is preferred by working families; driving from where they work to home in peak traffic, dinner from the drive-thru is ‘normal’. It’s ingrained in the fabric of the ‘highways to everywhere’ culture of the USA now, that food service is only just off the next exit ramp. Fill up gas, grab food, and carry on back to the highway. No such thing as ‘quality parenting time’ when life is lived at that pace.

      How they’re going to scale that back with oil becoming more expensive, and all the petro-chemical derived agrichemicals becoming scarcer, are issues that much of the US policy machine won’t touch.
      I guess here, the current Government is only aping what happens overseas by flinging subsidies to farmers instead of looking at why it doesn’t pay off to produce food that way, and defining more sustainable approaches to the entire food industry. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, it all starts getting weirder and weirder the further from real-life solutions they go.

    9. By Cam McLeod on May 10, 2011 | Reply

    10. By Elyse on May 11, 2011 | Reply

      John Key asked real questions on BBC’s hardtalk

    11. By Lang on May 11, 2011 | Reply

      So we become a nation, after the US, of tasteless fast-food gobbling, serfs, while the upper class develops a refined avarice? It’s mind-boggling, the speed at which the national government is dismantling NZ’s social system, removing environmental safe-guards, and selling off NZ’s most precious assets. Please keep up with the reveal on Scoop. It is vital to strenuously resist this class (or is it caste) establishing “government”.

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