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From the September 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 9)

Helen Clark, Greens, and the Case of the 'Genetically Modified' Corn

New Zealand: Kernels of Truth

Ken Coates, World Press Review correspondent, Christchurch, New Zealand

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark was clearly angered just two weeks ahead of general elections. With her Labor government sitting comfortably at 48 percent against the opposition center-right National Party’s 24.5 percent in the polls, according to the Herald-Digi Poll, it all looked plain sailing to election day, July 27.

Clark’s disquiet was caused by allegations in a new book by activist Nicky Hager, and by the Greens, of a cover-up involving the government, big business, and officials in which some allegedly genetically modified (GM) corn had been found growing in New Zealand fields. The New Zealand Herald (July 11) reported that a furious Clark denied involvement in a cover-up allowing GM corn seeds accidentally imported from the United States to be planted, harvested, and sold for food. “The so-called release Hager wrote about was a corn seed with a theoretical outside limit of a 0.4 percent contamination, and not necessarily of genetic modification,” said Clark.

Relations between Labor and the Greens were strained after furious exchanges in which Clark accused the Greens of  “gutter politics.” She pointed to the link between the book’s author and its publisher, Craig Potton, a Green Party candidate. The Greens denied any involvement.

The National Business Review (July 10) reported that government officials were livid over the accusations. In the book, Hager claims that 178 hectares (440 acres) of contaminated sweet corn were planted in three regions. Three companies named as the source of the crop denied any involvement. The paper stated that the Green Party leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons, denied any connection with Hager’s book, saying the revelations in it had shocked her. But she appeared to back its conclusions and lost no time using it as a rallying call for support.

The political editor of The New Zealand Herald, John Armstrong, commented (July 11): “Whatever the facts of the Great GM Sweet Corn Scandal, the damage has been done. Labor’s campaign has taken a spectacular hit.” The National Party, headed by the well-educated, young farmer-politician, Bill English, from the deep south of the country, has sought to discredit Clark.

The Press (July 9) stated in an editorial: “For months her character has come under attack in Parliament with rare venom....Attacks have had no effect on the standing of the prime minister or her party. They have seemingly rebounded on National. Its standing has steadily declined during the assault.”

Writing for the New Zealand Press Association (July 8), Peter Wilson said: “Any notion of the center-right actually winning on July 27 has disappeared. What is at stake is National’s future as a powerful opposition party. It is a sad state of affairs for an organization that considers itself ‘the natural party of government,’ and ruled for nine years until it lost the 1999 election.”

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