GM: a choice demanding more than a majority

The government is about to make one of the most critical decisions of its first term — maybe its whole life. It will decide policy on genetic modification (GM). Whichever way it jumps, there will be no way back to where we are now for a long time, perhaps eternity.

The cabinet will make this critical decision amidst a frenzy of lobbying and propaganda from GM’s opponents (who call it genetic engineering, which sounds more sinister) and proponents, some of whom have had the Prime Minister’s ear in recent weeks.

It will make its decision amidst economic uncertainty, which adds sharpness to calls not to let any opportunity go begging but not sharpness as to which of two divergent opportunities — “clean and green” versus cutting-edge bio-science — is correct.

The cabinet will make its decision amidst political uncertainty as to how far safe-food fears might boost the Greens. Polling advice to ministers has suggested the Greens might get to 15% in next year’s election, which some at high level fear would make managing the government much more difficult.

Greens see themselves as a new-paradigm party, in policy and process. On an important enough issue they might withdraw support for the government. GM is such an issue.

The cabinet will also decide this matter at the very time when the National party has, by changing its leader and thus changing political generations, cleared the decks to develop a new policy tone consonant with the 2000s and thereby reinstate National as the normal party of government.

Labour also wants to be the normal party of government. This is its best chance of that in half a century and maybe its only chance for another decade or two if it miscues now. That means in part working out whether going ever greener is the future or just the preoccupation of one charmed political generation.

The cabinet could, of course, just duck. Its royal commission recommended “proceed with caution”, reserving to the government the decision on the first application for product development.

The commission heard reams of evidence on GM’s pros and cons, criteria for deciding whether and how to proceed and on mechanisms (already the world’s most stringent) for managing consents. The evidence included world-class scientific evidence, plus exhaustive economic, ethical, religious and ethnic argumentation.

In short, it did what royal commissions are supposed to do. It abstracted the debate from the emotion, misinformation and self-interested manipulation that characterise much of politics.

If, after that dispassionate distillation, the government decides on some sort of moratorium on, say, GM products — with the support of not much more than a bare majority in Parliament — is that democratically defensible?

Yes it is. A majority is a majority is a majority. Despite MMP and cuddly talk of consensus and consultation, majority rule — represented on specific policy decisions by a majority of MPs — is bedrock in our political culture.

Some people don’t accept majorities with which they profoundly disagree. Rod Donald, sworn as an MP to uphold the law, says he would break the law to stop GM. It is an issue, like the 1981 Springbok tour, on which civil disobedience is justified, he says. The consequences of giving away our GM virginity are potentially too terrible, not to mention economically risky, to leave unchallenged.

There is a quieter way of breaking ranks with the majority. Faced with a moratorium, Fonterra (alias the Dairy Board) would, we are told, shift its GM work offshore and the proliferating small high-tech companies which use GM would pack up their labs.

Moreover, university projects to capitalise on cutting-edge science would lose a prime dimension. Bio-science would lose some, perhaps much, of its appeal to budding scientists. And that could be deadly serious for a country still economically dependent on bio-industries and desperately needing top-class bio-scientists to defend those industries against imported ravages.

What do these diametrically opposed options tell us about what the cabinet must do? Only that the issue is not the legitimacy of its choice but clear reasoning and an honest statement of the economic, social and environmental consequences.