Navigating GM fears

As political management issues stack up, they don’t come much more challenging than genetic modification (GM). This is the crunch month because the moratorium on applications for release ends on October 27.

The government says it has to keep the GM door open because if this country has any comparative advantage in research it is in the biosciences and GM is an integral part.

At the same time it has both to reassure those who fear for their health and to avoid our food exports being blacklisted by nervous foreigners.

Its solution: on the one hand, a complex regulatory regime that is so tight some, perhaps many, scientists and private investors might give up; on the other, a provision for conditional release and also easier access to low-risk GM organisms for experiments that infuriates the anti-GM lobby.

There is a rule in politics that if no one is satisfied you have probably got it right. That is where the government thinks it is. The Greens hope it is the opposite, 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 Greens GM is not just a matter of principle but of the future of the human race if there is just one wrong step. They believe they are saving humanity.

This is incomprehensible to the professional politicians in the other parties. They say politics is the art of the possible and positions have to 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 that will at the earliest be when the Environmental Risk Management Authority rules on an application — maybe a year from now — and arguably only when there is an actual release, which might take us close to the 2005 election.

The Greens say the fight will go on 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.

Moreover, though the Greens are critical to passing social, workplace, constitutional and environmental legislation at the core of the government’s programme, they say they will 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 in the 2002 election was 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 a majority if United Future fades and Labour itself can’t make up that slack.

Labour can, of course, do a 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 a sticking point, as in 2002.

Moreover, the Greens will by 2005 want to be in the government because only so much is achievable from outside. And they know, and say, they can advance their programme only if Labour, which is mildly sympathetic to many of their aims, is the government.

Labour would much 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 — in short, make it more likely Labour will be 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 in that, it may not be enough, especially if a slower economy and other normal second-term wear and tear erodes Labour’s own support. Moreover, many in Labour’s own rank and file — and many of its voters — are far nearer to the Greens on GM than to United Future on moral, social and economic issues.

So just saying “tough” might not be enough. Once the government is through this noisy month, it will still have much massaging to do.