Friday, February 23, 2024

Tallying O’Connor’s harvest, and McClay’s season ahead

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Allan Barber speaks to the new minister of trade and agriculture and his predecessor in the two key primary sector political roles.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

I decided to wind up my commentary pieces for the year by talking to the Labour and National governments’ ministers for agriculture and trade to seek their views on the challenges and opportunities facing New Zealand. 

Unsurprisingly, they hold differing opinions on what has been achieved and what still needs to happen, although they are united in their desire to see NZ agriculture progress towards increasing export values and meeting our responsibilities in emissions reduction.

Damien O’Connor told me he had been enormously privileged to serve the country, first as associate minister under Jim Sutton and Jim Anderton in earlier Labour governments, and latterly as agriculture minister and associate then minister for trade in the previous two governments since 2017. 

In his earlier stints he learned a lot about rural communities and biosecurity, which informed his determination to adopt the M bovis eradication policy when the bacteria was discovered in NZ. He is proud of the fact this strategy has been almost completely successful.

He is also proud of the growth in agricultural exports during and since covid, which is testament to the efforts of the whole sector, as well as the team of highly skilled trade negotiators who have enabled the conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreements as well as the signing of free trade agreements (FTAs) with the United Kingdom and European Union. These are very good examples of what constitutes a sophisticated modern trade agreement, referencing environmental management, animal welfare, recognition of indigenous peoples, women, and small and medium enterprises.  Upgrading the China/NZ FTA was another success.

O’Connor is less optimistic about the prospects for concluding FTAs with India and the Gulf Cooperation Council. India pulled out of RCEP at the last minute and, although it is talking to several other countries, including Australia, these discussions are proving to be inconclusive. 

The Gulf states are unable to reach agreement on what they are prepared to offer NZ and the offer is now far worse than it was in 2009. The options with these two markets appear to be a bilateral with Qatar, and sophisticated but selective partnerships with Indian sectors rather than a broad FTA.

On the domestic front O’Connor regrets the failure to reach consensus with the sector on He Waka Eke Noa, believing the last Labour offer tabled to have been pretty fair. He is convinced something must be put in place of HWEN and feels there still exists a significant opportunity for NZ to demonstrate leadership in the emissions reduction space. 

He regrets what he terms confusing messages from farming leaders who decided they had to represent the wishes of the most vocal farmers, rather than driving towards admittedly unpopular, but ultimately necessary outcomes. He does not accept the suggestion that Labour may have gone too far and too fast with its proposals, believing them to be essential for NZ agriculture to meet the standards demanded by our customers and trading partners. 

In spite of a long spell in Parliament representing the West Coast and the loss of his electorate seat in the recent election, O’Connor remains committed to his work as an opposition MP with the motivation to continue to serve the West Coast, as well as keep the new government honest. 

Todd McClay kept the agriculture and trade portfolios in the face of strong challenges from coalition partners ACT and NZ First, which wanted their spokespeople, Andrew Hoggard and Mark Patterson, to be given the role. However, with National MP Nicola Grigg, both of them have been appointed associate ministers outside cabinet, thus forming what McClay terms the strongest ever agriculture team, plus Shane Jones as minister of fisheries. Patterson will take on responsibility for the wool industry, while delegations for the other two associates will be announced in due course.

McClay will have visited India before Christmas to follow up on O’Connor’s trade delegation earlier in the year to try to advance the relationship with the world’s largest democracy, which has proved frustratingly difficult to convince of the desirability of increasing bilateral trade with NZ. 

National has the ambitious targets of negotiating an FTA with India and doubling agricultural exports within 10 years, both of which could be termed highly optimistic or downright impossible. That said, he is confident in the skills of NZ’s trade negotiating team, which consistently punches above its weight.

McClay’s other priority is to restore confidence to NZ farmers by simplifying regulatory obstacles, such as bringing greater certainty to freshwater quality and removing duplication of farm plans. He also insists the government will ensure strong policy on emissions reduction, conducting a review of the science around emissions and the present methane reduction targets next year. 

He intends to meet farming leaders in the New Year to discuss pragmatic solutions to livestock emissions, which he says will avoid leakage of NZ production moving offshore to less efficient producers. This government will focus on emissions efficiency rather than reduction at all costs.

If McClay achieves his stated objectives for his two ministerial responsibilities, he will undoubtedly be judged a success by farmers and exporting companies alike. It is too early to judge O’Connor’s achievements in the roles, although the farming community demonstrated its extreme displeasure with the Labour government’s performance by voting out all its rural constituency MPs, including O’Connor. 

On the other hand, he worked hard and successfully to strengthen NZ’s trade position, finally attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting last month in San Francisco as this country’s sole government representative. He has clearly been a very competent and skilful minister of trade, while the jury remains out on his time as minister of agriculture.

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