I’m just back from a family holiday in sunny south-east Queensland. Being a New Zealander, I have a visceral fear of snakes, but as we saw them only in the zoo, one could concentrate on the upsides of Australia. Seriously good newspapers for example. Daily surf swims in the middle of July. Plastic bags in plenty of shops (Queensland seems to have outlawed – the very useful – thin supermarket bags but not others). And, of course, one could look around, and read the papers, and contemplate what productivity and higher material living standards really mean. It was a while since I’d been in Brisbane, and the central city certainly had a look and feel more prosperous than what one finds in Auckland (or Wellington).
At the turn of the century, GDP per hour worked (PPP terms) was about 31 per cent higher in Australia than in New Zealand, and on the latest OECD estimates than gap is now 41 per cent. And it isn’t as if Australia itself is some stellar productivity performer. (Those with longish memories may recall a time barely 10 years ago when there was serious political talk of closing the economic gaps with Australia, but – as a result of policy choices of both National and Labour governments – the gaps have just widened.)
I couldn’t see state-level GDP per hour worked data for Australia, but there is GDP per capita data. The gaps between New Zealand and Australia aren’t as large for per capita income as for labour productivity, simply reflecting the longer hours the typical New Zealanders engages in paid work over their lifetime. For Australia as a whole, GDP per capita (PPP) terms is “only” 34 per cent higher than in New Zealand. In Queensland – with below average state GDP per capita – that gap is “only” about 25 per cent. Even a 25 per cent difference purchases a lot of (say) cancer drugs, new cars of whatever other public or private goods and services people aspire to. I’m sure the Australian health system has its problems, but I was struck reading three papers a day over 10 days not to see stories about health underfunding. And yet the (various levels of ) Australian governments spend a smaller share of GDP (35 per cent) than New Zealand governments do (38 per cent).
So there was sun, surf, papers, productivity in Queensland. And there was another thing I always look out for abroad.
I prefer fresh but the little supermarket near where we were staying “only” had smoked. Not, in this case, the Australian product but (so I was surprised to notice when opening the packet) Norwegian.
The wonders of a global market and all that. But just not in New Zealand.
There are, of course, plenty of trout in New Zealand – all descendants of trout introduced in the 19th century (it isn’t exactly a native species). In fact, some of the trout species in Australia was introduced from New Zealand.
But if there are lots of trout in New Zealand, the only way you can consume any is to go and catch one yourself, or make friends with someone who fishes for them and who will gift a trout to you. It is as if I could only consume milk if I owned a cow or had someone close by who would give me milk. Perhaps the first half of that sentence did describe much of the world prior to the 20th century, but even then the sale of milk wasn’t banned. But the New Zealand government has for decades now banned the sale of wild trout.
When I went looking, I discovered that the sale of other trout isn’t outlawed in New Zealand, but as a recent regulatory impact statement prepared by the Department of Conservation put it.
The sale of trout (except for wild trout) is allowed in New Zealand. The reason it is not available for sale is because there is no way to obtain trout to sell – trout farming, selling wild trout, and importing trout are all prevented by legislation or the CIPO.
(that’s a customs import prohibition order). The prohibition extends to smoked trout. Here is the latest version of the restriction, just renewed a few months ago.
Read literally, clause 4(1)(b) appears to suggest that the imports for sale are only prohibited if they are for amounts of less than 10 kgs.
That can’t have been what was intended, but it appears to be what the law says. [UPDATE: I misread it.]
There was a policy process undertaken last year that led up to the government’s decision to renew the import ban. It was weird policy process, described thus
There has been no public consultation on the options covered by this paper. The views of the various interest groups are well known to officials, but there may be Treaty implications if a firm decision was taken without formal consultation with iwi. The nature of the issues mean that a decision has to be made as to which set of interests should be given precedence.
Officials – of course – consider they know all that needs to be known. And quite Treaty issues arise in respect of foreign trade in a species itself introduced to New Zealand is beyond me – but fortunately I’m no longer a public servant.
Of the official agencies that were consulted, MFAT actually favoured allowing the import restriction to lapse. I’m not usually a fan of MFAT – and had Beijing objected for some reason, no doubt they’d have taken the other side – but well done them on this one. It isn’t a good look when New Zealand prattles on about open trade, rules-based orders, when it maintains in place a near-absolute prohibition of the importation of an innocuous, but tasty, food product.
I guess no one looks to the Department of Conservation for high quality and rigorous policy analysis, especially on economic issues. Their RIS on the trout CIPO did nothing but reinforce those doubts.
The entire official case for the prohibition of imports of trout (and, by implication, for continuing restrictions on domestic trout farming – although that isn’t the focus of this particular policy process) appears to rest on supporting the recreational trout fishing industry.
22. The import prohibition and the prohibition on the farming of trout are aimed at protecting the New Zealand wild trout fishery.
Like, for example, banning deer farming to protect hunting of deer in the bush? Or pig farming? Or salmon farming?
The officials even acknowledge that (for example) allowing the sale of salmon has not led to widespread salmon poaching, and that other countries successfully manage to have wild trout fishing and trout sales. But, they plaintively suggest, New Zealand is somehow different. For example
If imported trout could be sold, the illegal sale of wild trout would be much more difficult and costly to detect.
Which is, of course, not an argument for maintaining the existing restrictions but for removing both import and domestic sales (and farming) restrictions, not continuing to run industry assistance to a small tourism sector – somewhat akin to the protection that used to be offered to the New Zealand car assembly industry or the New Zealand television assembly industry. You get the impression reading the document that the DOC officials have simply got all too close to their mates in Taupo, and are subject to regulatory capture.
The documents contains this paragraph
42. The Government’s objectives in regard to the issues examined in this paper can be summarised as follows:
• Maximise recreational and tourism values of wild trout fishery
• Maximise employment and economic values of wild trout fishery
• Maximise economic growth and employment opportunities in the wider economy
• Provide for maximum consumer choice in purchasing decisions
• Minimise risk of friction in negotiations with trading partners.
These objectives are not referenced to any fuller document in which “the government” makes its case, and they have the feel of being made up on the fly with little or no supporting analysis. They go on to state
43. The interactions between these issues mean that it is not always possible to progress all of these objectives simultaneously. Actions that could advance some of the objectives may restrict progress on other objectives. Decisions on which objectives should be given precedence therefore need to be made by elected Ministers.
In a way, of course, that is true. If your goal is to maximise the size of the protected sub-industry, whether buttressed by direct subsidies (think film), import bans (trout), domestic production of a related product (trout farming ban) it will conflict with overarching goals about consumer choices and economic efficiency (as well as that lesser goal about living the words about a free and open economy with respect to trading partners). But, as in so many industries in the past, that tension should be resolved in favour of the consumer and of economic efficiency. In this case, it isn’t even clear that there really is much of a tension. DOC’s RIS offers not the slightest evidence that allowing imports of trout meat (smoked or otherwise), or even allowing domestic farming of trout, would make any difference whatever to the number of North American anglers who come to Taupo. Perhaps on the domestic side there might be a smaller number of trout fisherman…….in the same way that a much smaller proportion of us milk house cows, collect our own eggs, or whatever than we once used to. The only “value” really being protected here is that people who don’t go fishing shouldn’t be able to eat trout in New Zealand. If that is a values-based policy framework, it is a pretty weird one. Logically, one might apply the same daft policy to native fish too.
It is really quite shoddy advice, in support of shoddy policy. As one gets to the end of the RIS one gets the impression a reasonable number of government departments are beginning to conclude that the policy around trout is a nonsense and should eventually be revisited. But it isn’t clear that DoC is among them – then again, they are probably brought up to dislike all introduced species (may not even be too keen on people, disturbing that natural environment), and they simply aren’t the agency that should be responsible for an issue of industry protection policy and interfering with the ability of New Zealanders to easily consume a safe and lawful product.
There was petition last year seeking to introduce trout farming in New Zealand. Whether it gets anywhere, only time will tell, but it is hard to be optimistic when the current government extended the existing import ban again only last year. Perhaps New Zealand consumers will have to hope that foreign governments will take up the issue more seriously, and put more sustained pressure on the New Zealand government to remove the barriers between consumers and trout (more cheaply and efficiently than holidaying abroad).