Saturday, December 2, 2023

A couple of sparks and a fair few laughs in agri debate

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Party-political part of the programme kicks off red meat conference.
National’s agriculture spokesperson Todd McClay, centre, pictured here with National leader Christopher Luxon and Northland candidate Grant McCallum, has reiterated the party’s position of no emissions pricing before 2030.
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More than 300 people involved in the sector attended the Red Meat Sector Conference in Auckland earlier this month, the largest ever attendance. 

The event kicked off with a political debate between Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and National Party agriculture spokesperson Todd McClay. It was introduced by Beef + Lamb New Zealand chair Kate Acland, who asked that “blood on the floor” be extracted by host Tova O’Brien. 

For those who enjoy blood sports, the reality was unfortunately much tamer, with the two politicians behaving in a far more genteel way than we have come to expect from the parliamentary debating chamber.

McClay sympathised with O’Connor’s obligation to defend the indefensible, deciding he was in the wrong political party. 

Their main points of difference were the entry of farming into the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2025 if no alternative has been agreed, which the government is clinging to as its default if a price for emissions fails to be adopted into law under the He Waka Eke Noa sector agreement; ways to limit the conversion of sheep and beef land into forestry; the restriction on migrants to bolster essential workforce shortages; the limited value of the European Union free trade agreement; and the failure to negotiate a trade agreement with India. 

McClay reiterated National’s position of no emissions pricing before 2030 because there are no means yet available for farmers to mitigate their emissions. 

O’Brien kept pressing him on National’s apparent wish to keep kicking the can down the road on this issue, similar to ACT’s wish to tie New Zealand’s response to that of our five main trading partners. 

The minister maintained other countries are ahead of us and technologies already exist to mitigate emissions, but need to be brought up to scale. However, he also protested that the price would only be set at the minimum level necessary to fund industry research, although he did not specify how this figure would be determined.

There was some esoteric debate about the potential of Bovaer, which has not yet been approved for use in this country, but which has been seen as a silver bullet for controlling methane emissions. O’Connor made the very reasonable point there is no guarantee it can be applied in a pastoral grazing system.

There was also plenty of debate on forestry conversions on marginal and good pastoral land with McClay trying to clarify how National would restrict them, somehow without impinging on property or Māori ownership rights. 

In answer to a question from the floor neither speaker was prepared to say what the carbon offset level ought to be compared with carbon emitters’ present ability to offset the full 100%, whereas all other countries except Kazakhstan set this at around 10%.  

The minister argued the government has already introduced adequate restrictions on the sale of sensitive land to overseas buyers for forestry and valuable horticultural land for development.

He defended the government’s position on immigration settings in spite of a shortage of essential workers in such areas as halal butchers, which last year cost the industry an estimated $600 million. 

He said covid has created a shortage of workers in many different sectors and the red meat sector has benefited from changed immigration settings to address some of the gaps. He cautioned against NZ’s continuing dependence on migrant workers to plug these gaps but without any clear idea how to do this. 

McClay raised the question of how to incentivise some of the 80,000 on employment benefits to get into work and said National would look at introducing policies to achieve this. There is clearly no short-term fix, so the sector will have to continue training its own replacements.

The EU free trade agreement inspired predictable criticism, both from McClay and from the audience, while O’Connor tried valiantly to portray it as a major win for NZ exporters, just not beef producers whose access to that valuable market remains at a fractional percentage of the total. 

National’s other criticism of the deal is the lack of any provision to renegotiate if another country, for example Australia, achieves a better outcome. That said, the FTA is subject to annual reviews and no doubt this will be brought up regularly at those reviews. 

The minuscule beef quota is undeniable and it will for ever be a bone of contention for red meat exporters, while every other sector of the economy would agree it was a good outcome. 

The lack of a FTA with India also resulted in a great deal of predictable hot air about why it hasn’t happened, what should have or could have been done by successive governments, and what a new government would do. 

Both these topics would probably have been better left to the presentation on the Monday by NZ’s chief trade negotiator, Vangelis Vitalis, for a less politically emotive and more factual discussion.

The biggest laughs during the debate came during question time. A sheep and beef farmer from Eketahuna, subsequently identified as Safer Farms chair Lyndy Nelson, asked how Labour would control the campaign by the Greens and the Māori Party for a wealth tax. 

Instead of taking O’Brien’s advice and saying the prime minister has ruled it out, O’Connor got himself into a hole by arguing New Zealanders do not pay enough tax, although a wealth tax is not party policy. O’Brien neatly summarised this by saying paying more tax is not a winning election pledge, which caused much amusement.

Alliance chair Murray Taggart asked why NZ insists on maintaining the 100% carbon offset facility, unlike all our other major trading partners. After lengthy non-committal answers from both the politicians, O’Brien asked him whether he was satisfied by them, to which Taggart replied curtly “No”, which again attracted a lot of laughs. The debate finished with each speaker having to say something complimentary about the other.

In summary, the debate produced very little heat, a modicum of light and quite a few laughs.

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