The mixture of enthusiasm and caution from apple growers at
news of a draft interim World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling
on New Zealand access to the Australian market is
understandable. For 89 years this country's apples have been
excluded, and successive attempts to gain access have been
When grudgingly, entry was allowed, the conditions, like
orchard inspections and chlorine baths for export fruit, were
impossible. They doubled the cost of producing apples and
made sending them to Australia hopelessly uneconomic.
Finally and belatedly, in 2007, the Clark government felt it
necessary to take its neighbour and friend to the WTO.
As expected, progress has been slow and, as expected, the WTO
is finding in New Zealand's favour, especially because the
United States won a similar long drawn-out apple case against
The WTO has again studied mountains of detailed scientific
evidence and has confirmed the risk of fireblight being
spread through mature apples is negligible.
The fact that the final decision is still months away and
Australia can still appeal on matters of law is one ground
for grower caution. Growers know the strength and vehemence
of the apple lobby which fears New Zealand will undercut
Australian producers on price and quality.
The spectre of Chinese exports also looms.
China, it is said, is the world's largest apple producer and
already has sizeable slices of both the New Zealand and
Australian markets in horticultural goods.
Chinese garlic, for example, is usually far cheaper and far
slicker in its presentation than the local equivalents.
If Australia lets New Zealand in then others are likely to
follow, including China.
Chile, too, is lining up the Australian market.
The Australian apple market is not huge and estimates for New
Zealand exports range around $15 million to $20 million per
annum, small but significant.
On the other hand Australian apple consumption is much lower
than New Zealand's and better prices and more competition
could be what is needed to stimulate demand.
Issues like apple importation run on emotion, leaving the
science and the facts ignored, twisted or rejected.
One Australian MP said last week of imported New Zealand
apples, "you'll have outbreaks [of fireblight] all over the
Australian growers, similarly, magnify any hint of a risk and
claim the science is on their side. Unfortunately, the
reputation of the objectivity of scientists has been
besmirched, sometimes justifiably, in recent times.
This gives weight to those who treat with scepticism the
claims of a negligible chance of spreading fireblight via
The growers pressure the Government and Biosecurity Australia
and, soon, in high dudgeon, they convince many Australians of
both the plight and right of their position.
Imagine the matter in reverse.
New Zealand growers would also battle hard to protect their
patch and their livelihoods, with biosecurity risks likely to
As everyone knows, such arguments are potent because
introduced pests can so easily devastate industries - just
ask apiarists what the Varroa mite has done to honey
Australia is in this instance, however, a blatant hypocrite.
It battles for free trade in agriculture while putting up
several specific agricultural barriers to protect its own,
including against New Zealand apples.
This is all the more galling because of Australian domination
of so much of New Zealand commerce.
Its big retailers devastate small New Zealand merchants and
its banks just about monopolise banking services.
The two governments have until the end of this month to
comment on the draft decision before a final ruling is made.
Hopefully, the ammunition supplied by that decision will
enable comparatively rapid progress on opening up the
The New Zealand Government, while recognising the delicacy of
forcing the issue before the looming Australian elections,
should prompt Australia to move later this year and stop
Indications are the time is coming when New Zealand growers
can gain access to a sizeable new market on our doorstep.