William Rolleston sees the advent of argument dressed up as science but which abandons the principles of evidence, balance and context in order to persuade

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Our free trade prospects have been a victim of Brexit and the US Presidential election. New Zealand must be careful not to be caught in the crossfire of any ensuing trade war, Dr William Rolleston says.

Rolleston, the President of Federated Farmers, told its National Council in Wellington today that there were opportunities in disruption but our officials would need to play their cards with skill and tact.

“If there is any area of government which needs investment priority right now, it is our trade division,” he said.

An outcome of the post truth politics of the UK and USA of late has been a check on the liberal journey the western world has been on and “a reactive slide into isolationism, protectionism, anti-globalisation and the ugly side of nationalism”.

While a Trans Pacific Partnership which includes the USA has gone for the meantime “I would not write off its long term prospects,” Rolleston said.

“The TPP took more than ten years to negotiate. A presidential term is four.

“New Zealand needs to hold the line in our trade with the USA and make small gains where we can but any trade deal, in my view, can wait. ‘America first’ is not a good pretext for a balanced outcome.”

In an era of post truth politics, at least one White House spokesperson considered it appropriate to cite ‘alternative facts’.

“For us in the primary industries where evidence and science is so critical, these tactics are not new. I have termed it Post Factual Science,” Rolleston said.

It threatens to send us backwards technologically or at least slow our progress. Farmers will be impacted.

“Post Factual Science is argument dressed up as science but which abandons the principles of evidence, balance and context in order to persuade,” he said.

“We have seen Post Factual Science frustrate us in the debates on immunisation, fluoride and 1080.”

New Zealand needed to be on guard it did not creep into debates about agricultural practices.

It made institutions such as the Fertilizer Council very important and was why investment in scientific research, which uses the scientific method to sort out fact from fiction, causation from correlation, was critical.

“Our decision makers need to resist Post Factual Science and pandering to fear. Our local councils appear to be particularly vulnerable in this space. The problem for us is that once rules are notified in Regional and District plans the burden of proof to have them removed can become insurmountable. We have seen this in the rules imposed by several councils on genetic modification and the use of glyphosate.

“And it is simply not acceptable for regional councils to notify plans that include fencing rules for hill country farmers which are patently impractical and detrimental for the environment as well as the economy.”

Councils needed to realise they have to work with farmers if they are to effect change. They must sort out fact from fiction early on and set out with rules which are practical, doable and evidence-based, Rolleston said.


William Rolleston is the President of Federated Farmers. The full version of this speech is here.