Thursday, December 7, 2023

This could be DairyNZ’s reform election

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BLNZ has remade itself at board level – and this directors’ election may be dairy’s turn, Alan Emerson says.
Groundswell’s major achievement has been to motivate farmers to make themselves heard, Alan Emerson says.
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The upcoming DairyNZ election for directors will be interesting. There are 13 candidates for just two seats at the board table, which is highly unusual but positive in my view.  

The chair, Jim van der Poel, is standing again, along with 12 other hopefuls. He’s been on the board for three terms.

This year has seen a change in the approach of farmers to their industry good organisations, and the recent Beef + Lamb New Zealand (BLNZ) director election was testament to that. It will be interesting to see what happens with DairyNZ.

I’ve always had questions about our producer boards and the industry good organisations as I’ve seen some incredible stupidity over the decades. 

Going back to the old Meat Board, Wool Board and Dairy Board, I’d question what those boards actually achieved.

The exception would be the Dairy Board, which was lean and focused. It achieved a lot for dairy farmers. The Meat Board tended to come and go and the Wool Board was an utter and complete waste of rations.

Directors back then tended to be older males with, preferably, a pedigree. Everyone took themselves extremely seriously.  

My biggest issue with the current industry good bodies has been their insulated culture and approach. The prime reason for their existence seems to have been to protect their bailiwick.

That hasn’t served farmers well over the years, with wasteful duplication being the norm.

It only makes it easier for the powers that be to divide and conquer. It is easy to achieve policy objectives if you are dealing with a variety of groups, especially when they don’t co-operate – as has been the case.

A simple example of that siloed approach would be lobbying, which Federated Farmers does, or advocacy, which is effectively lobbying from the levy groups. They are highly specialised disciplines. He Waka Eke Noa showed just how out of touch the levy organisations are, with the resultant farmer revolt.

Federated Farmers knows what its membership thinks. It has to if it wants to stay in business; it is easy for a farmer to leave Feds. Alas, that’s not the case with the levy organisations. There is a vote taken every six years and only a few farmers bother to turn up. 

Farmers are effectively locked into a tax on production for six years and the beneficiary can almost do what it likes over that time. The levy has been voted in – there is no need for accountability and in many cases there hasn’t been.

That changed with the formation of Groundswell. It was grassroots-farmer-led and totally focused. It picked its key issues and went for them. 

Groundswell’s major achievement has been to motivate farmers to make themselves heard. That resulted in changes being made.

In BLNZ’s case there was a change of chair and a new board member. We now have a young woman who is a successful farmer and businessperson running BLNZ. That would have been unheard of 20 years ago.

It also has a new board member, Geoffrey Young from Southland, who has been involved with Feds so is tuned into what farmers are thinking.

The organisation will be the better for it, and from my observation the changes already made have been considerable.

The question now is whether it is DairyNZ’s turn to go through the same reform process. It does have Professor Jacqueline Rowarth and Chris Lewis on the board, both of whom I rate. Colin Glass is standing down and Van der Poel is up for re-election.

Selecting two out of the 13 contenders will be difficult as there is a variety of talent stepping forward.

With the number of candidates it is inevitable that the vote will be split, which would give the chair an advantage as I see it. Time will tell.

Shane Ardern has put his name forward, which surprised me a little. He bruised his knuckles, certainly with the free marketers in his National Caucus, over the formation of Fonterra, which cost him the chance of a cabinet role in the Key/English government.  

I was impressed with the way he stuck to his principles against considerable odds. Without him we wouldn’t have Fonterra.

He would have made a good minister. He is certainly a good farmer and would make a valuable contribution to DairyNZ.

The dairy industry has some massive challenges on the horizon. It needs the right people in the right roles to handle those challenges and ensure a profitable and sustainable industry going forward.

So from here on it is up to the dairy farmers to choose two out of 13. Voting opens in just a few days and it is really important you have your say. It would be incredibly disappointing to have a low turnout for such an important vote.

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