Saturday, December 2, 2023

Writing’s on the wall for levy organisations 

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Unless they change, the current boards will be history next time there’s a vote, says Alan Emerson.
Geoffrey Young’s election to the board of Beef + Lamb New Zealand has put the boards of it and DairyNZ on notice to heed farmers’ voices, says Alan Emerson. Photo: Natwick
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I was aware of the rebellious South during the lead-up to the Beef + Lamb NZ director vote. The Southerners weren’t happy and wanted change. They believed BLNZ had grown too close to the government and they wanted a different approach. That new direction motivated the campaign to remove the chair of the organisation, Andrew Morrison.

The man chosen to oppose Morrison was Geoffrey Young, an ex Southland Federated Farmers president and recent mayoral candidate. He’s a straight-up character who “always had farmers interests at heart, a genuine bloke”. Additionally “he did a great job at Feds”, and “Southland farmers are over the moon”. “Grassroots farmers are genuinely impressed”.

That’s all really positive feedback.

There was concern expressed that Pāmu would vote to maintain the status quo and that the grassroots farmers needed to get voters registered and out to vote.

The turnout was a mere 36%, only slightly higher than the recent levy vote of 34.9%. Surprisingly, in my view, even with the low turnout Young achieved 8,777 votes, 2190 ahead of Morrisson.

That sends a significant message to the other directors of both BLNZ and Dairy NZ. The message is that the organisations are on the wrong track and need to change. Ignore that at your peril.

Young reiterated that during an interview with Jamie McKay on The Country.

“Andrew worked extremely hard for Beef + Lamb,” he said. “The board wasn’t following what farmers wanted.”

And there’s the problem. BLNZ, in the opinion of grassroots farmers, isn’t representing their best interests. 

I feel positive, however, about the opportunity for change going forward.

The Southern campaign has shown farmers that if they get together for a common purpose they can achieve a lot.

In 2021 only a third of voters on the BLNZ electoral roll voted for a continuation of the levy. While I accept that everyone had the opportunity of voting, it showed extreme apathy that only one in three did.

Mind you, that didn’t stop BLNZ crying its success from the rooftops. 

We were initially informed that farmers who voted had “overwhelmingly supported the continuation of the sheepmeat and beef levies”.

Farmers had “strongly endorsed BLNZ’s role in advocacy”.

One could humbly suggest that 90% of 35% of voters is still a dismal percentage of levy payers. A slim minority in fact. It does not in my view provide a mandate for anything.

As it happened, just over 5000 farmers voted for a levy that would cost the industry over $30 million a year for five years.

As I’ve said, the Southern farmers have shown us all that if farmers want change they can achieve it if they work together. 

A plank of both Young’s campaign and that of Chris Lewis at Dairy NZ was to work more closely with Federated Farmers. 

I totally support that. We are a small sector under extreme threat. We need to stand united and not be divided and conquered.

In the past BLNZ has actively undermined Feds for whatever reason. Just recently the levy group has formed an alliance with ginger group 50 Shades of Green, (50 SOG). While 50 SOG has proven to be highly effective, why is BLNZ going with it while giving Feds a two-fingered salute?

Why is BLNZ supporting it with cash while depriving Federated Farmers?

I’d also respectfully ask who has the better track record lobbying the government. I’d humbly suggest Feds. 

Finally, was the decision to shove it up Feds endorsed by the board of BLNZ?

The major difference between BLNZ, Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers is that of accountability. 

BLNZ and Dairy NZ just have to get through a minority of farmers voting for a levy every five years. Correspondingly, a farmer can leave Feds and with it its financial support whenever the mood takes them.

What that tells me is that the elected leaders at Federated Farmers are considerably more tuned into grassroots thinking than many of the board members of the levy organisations. There are now two ex-Feds leaders in the levy groups.

I’m both confident and hopeful that will lead to change. If a Southland farmer can roll the chair of BLNZ that should send a message to other board members of both levy groups.

Time will tell, but I’m optimistic. I firmly believe that if the levy organisations don’t change, they’ll be history next time there’s a vote.

The other farmer vote, for Eastern North Island, has been postponed courtesy of Cyclone Gabrielle. The incumbent, local farmer George Tatham, will remain until a vote can be held.

Tatham is standing down after nine years and will be missed. He’s intelligent and personable, a good farmer and employer who certainly has his feet on the ground.

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