Friday, December 8, 2023

Dear Chris, let’s have a kōrero

Phil Weir Profile Picture
In this series, the Eating the Elephant columnists each write to the next prime minister. This week, Phil Weir puts pen to paper.
Labour Party leader, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, left, and Leader of the Opposition, National’s Christopher Luxon.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The 14th of October will be an important day in New Zealand. Ian Foster’s men will do battle with the boys in green in France and the political contest of ideas you’ve engaged us in will culminate in the election. We will have got to know you properly – or maybe you will have just kept to the script and run carefully cultivated PR messages. I hope for the former. 

In October we will exercise our democratic right and nominate who has the collaborative conversation with David, Marama, James, Winston or Rawiri. Through He Waka Eke Noa, we in agriculture know that collaboration can be difficult, so we don’t envy you on that front.

Chris, over the next four weeks my Eating the Elephant colleagues and I will each write a letter to you – complete with some thoughts to ponder should you be elected prime minister in October. We will not complain about any avalanche of regulation, nor will we suggest you can influence geopolitics and global economic drivers. Rather, as is our custom, we will share a few ideas about agriculture through stories.

As you get around the country, the farmers you interact with will be reluctant to say spring has arrived. A Christmas frost is always possible. Here in Waikato, the daffodils of early September mean we are about to reach “balance date”. Balance date is the turning point for the year as a grass farmer. 

It’s when we move from a mindset of getting through the winter deficit, to working flat-out to manage the surplus around the corner. Chris, I bet you wish the next finance minister’s budgets could turn as quickly as our feed budgets! Alas for you, the economy is not the sheep and beef farmers’ pasture curve. 

Chris, what is also exciting about balance date is that it coincides with my birthday. This year is a milestone. Turning 40 calls for interesting introspection. On the home front, my children provide a daily reminder that education cannot be taken for granted as it is the enabler of our nation’s achievement. As the children of baby boomers ourselves, our parents’ increasing interactions with the healthcare system highlight plenty of challenges ahead for you there as well.

And then there are more important political matters than agriculture, with our having recently heard from NZ’s chief trade negotiator, Vangelis Vitalis, that the golden era of international trade is past, that geopolitical tensions will heighten and China’s economy is shaky at best. 

You will likely appreciate how this advice makes a middle-aged farmer dependent on global commodities somewhat uneasy. These are challenging times ahead that will require your strong leadership.    

Chris, you know that NZ succeeds when middle New Zealand succeeds and, like in life, your agricultural policies need to appeal to agriculture’s silent middle/majority who are head-down, bum-up this time of year.

Turning 40 makes me mature enough to relate to the conservative messages of Groundswell’s Laurie and Bryce, while at the same time seeing a lot of potential in the ideas of the Future Farmers NZ manifesto. 

When talking with your coalition mates on October 15, please bear in mind that most of us share the opinions of the political or philosophical extremes in equal measure. Bear in mind that through our hardworking desire for continuous improvement, we farmers want to change, but as is human nature, we will be afraid of it. 

Chris, as highlighted in Todd Muller’s illuminating valedictory speech, you need to talk more with the other Chris on the big issues of climate change response, infrastructure modernisation and research & development. We need improvements in all these areas and maybe you boys reaching consensus could allow the political games to be played out in areas materially less important to us.

The challenge with the middle-aged or the political middle is that we don’t always neatly fit into one camp or the other. Those of us in the agricultural middle want NZ to be a leader in sustainability for the climate, but not at the expense of our family businesses and our livelihood. We want our rivers to be in the best of health while also being able to consider water storage and irrigation. We will protect native vegetation and biodiversity, while at the same time driving to increase production efficiency. 

We in the middle have become frustrated by the binary polarisation of our politics. We in the middle are difficult to categorise and difficult to stereotype. At times we may come across as hypocritical, but we are human and I hope we are your team’s target audience.

Good luck Chris, I hope you can be the leader we need. 

People are also reading