Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Minefield as agri policy hustings heat up

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A minefield for industry good bodies as parties set out plans for sector.
Federated Farmers, led by president Andrew Hoggard, is wary of banking on any specific election result, says Allan Barber.
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With less than six months until the election, the main opposition parties have been busy releasing their agricultural policies, while the government has continued to push the agreement it believes it has reached with the sector as a result of the He Waka Eke Noa negotiations. Both Labour and the Greens have dismissed National’s position as respectively “not innovative” and “ideological nonsense”.

There are no prizes for picking where each party stands on the climate change continuum from the maximum possible to the minimum necessary. As usual Labour and National threaten to overlap in the middle while the Greens and ACT take more extreme positions. 

This will almost certainly be reflected in voting patterns in October when younger voters, including farmers, are more likely to support change than their older counterparts, who may vote for a more conservative option. 

Farmer representative organisations like Federated Farmers, DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb NZ (BLNZ) must pick their way carefully through the minefield of farmer attitudes to work out how strongly to back or attack the government and opposition’s policies. BLNZ in particular must assess its position following the robust comments and outcome of remits at its AGM, particularly in respect of emissions pricing and remaining in He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN). 

BLNZ must walk an almost impossibly high wire trying to maintain the support of enough of its levy payers while ensuring the current or future government does not abandon negotiations and put agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme. Given the extremes of viewpoints on these topics, choosing the right line is almost impossible, especially when no one can predict which coalition will gain a working majority. 

A Green party coalition with Labour would potentially produce a massive move against agricultural production, judging by the Greens’ stated policy to: “Significantly reduce livestock numbers; reduce the proportion of land used for livestock, based on requirements that are informed by soil types, regional climatic conditions and river catchment; phase out synthetic nitrogen fertilisers; and ensure that Aotearoa New Zealand honours its commitment to the International Methane Pledge.”

It also undertakes to phase out palm kernel expeller and other imported animal feeds. 

The involvement of Te Paati Māori in any Labour majority coalition would further complicate things, while it is impossible to see how National, let alone ACT, could remotely consider a deal with any combination of the Greens or TPM.

As the leading opposition party, National’s recently released statement signals the likely climate change direction if it takes over, but as a potentially strong and demanding coalition partner, ACT’s policy differences will become a factor. 

National has signalled its clear intent to “Get Wellington out of farming” and reduce the amount of regulation on farmers, but at the same time remains committed to action on the environment and climate change. It has announced farmer-pleasing policies such as doubling the number of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers, reintroducing live exports, banning overseas investment in farm-to-forestry conversions, improving stock exclusion rules, and ensuring the definition of Significant Natural Areas (SNA) protects the correct areas of biodiversity. 

In contrast to Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor’s dismissal of National’s policy as disappointing and lacking leadership to take farmers “into the future that they need”, ACT’s Mark Cameron gives it a six out of ten. In his opinion it has “too much compromise and a glaring lack of policy on HWEN and protecting property rights from SNA”. 

He says ACT will campaign to ensure the next government’s agriculture policy is 10/10 “by getting rid of the RSE cap completely, putting an end to virtue-signalling climate policy like HWEN, retaining property rights by repealing SNAs, and going further to ensure regional government has full control over freshwater limits.

He says it seems like National doesn’t want to talk about HWEN, probably because it backs it. National says there will be announcements to come on emissions pricing, but “farmers deserve to know what their position is now”. Cameron is adamant a National-led coalition can’t just water down Labour and Greens’ anti-farming policies, but must scrap them altogether.

Both BLNZ and Groundswell have welcomed National’s policy announcement, although possibly for slightly different reasons. There is a danger it signals an abandonment of some essential elements of progress which, as O’Connor believes, the industry must embrace to ensure it remains connected to the values and demands of its international consumers. 

I suspect Groundswell’s support comes predominantly from farmers resistant to too much change, while BLNZ’s levy payers are more likely to run the whole gamut from very progressive to highly conservative. Whatever position BLNZ takes it must not be overtly partisan or influenced unduly by a vocal minority; on the contrary, it must represent the best interests of all its levy payers. This will be easier said than done and will require sage advice from its board.

Federated Farmers is wary of banking on any specific election result and president Andrew Hoggard says the two main issues for the organisation and its members with HWEN remain gaining commitment on the avoidance of emissions leakage and a fair price-setting mechanism for methane, which recent scientific research suggests has a lower impact than previously thought.

The risk for the agricultural sector is to resist action in the expectation that a change of government will let it off the hook, which is a far-from-guaranteed outcome. If HWEN is not passed into law before the election, it may well come to be seen during the next parliamentary term as an increasingly unachievable preferred option.

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