Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Emissions impossible: the eventful tenure of Damien O’Connor

Neal Wallace
Neal Wallace sat down with the former agriculture and trade minister as he packed up his office and reflected on his time in the Beehive.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Damien O’Connor looked fresh and relaxed amid the packing boxes and bubble wrap dotting his Beehive office.

The setting was a vivid reminder that the tenure of a politician is measured in three-year increments.

There wasn’t any apparent bitterness about the Labour Party’s election mauling in October. A politician since 1993, he soon learnt that the future depends on the will of the electorate.

O’Connor has been a cabinet minister since 2005, initially overseeing the corrections and tourism portfolios until the 2017 election, when he was appointed agriculture minister, with trade added in 2020.

Reflecting on the past six years, O’Connor talks about his love of agriculture, the addiction of politics and the privilege of being in a position of influence.

Emptying his office was interrupted this week by a sudden trip to San Francisco to fly New Zealand’s flag at the APEC conference and associated trade meetings, while National, ACT and NZ First continue negotiating a coalition agreement.

O’Connor’s term as agriculture minister will be remembered for the unplanned Mycoplasma bovis and covid outbreaks, but also for its bold and somewhat unpopular policies.

There were significant wins. Effectively eradicating M bovis, preserving vocational training at Taratahi and Telford and free trade agreements with the United Kingdom and European Union.

There was contention in the implementation of freshwater reforms, pricing pastoral greenhouse gases, pastoral lease reform, the Significant Natural Areas policy that drove farm confidence to rock bottom and provoked farmer protests, and the emergence of Groundswell.

O’Connor says the past six years were largely what he expected, apart from the additional challenge of covid and M bovis.

“This job will always be full of unplanned interruptions and challenges, we just possibly had more than our fair share in the last six years,” he says.

O’Connor revealed that when faced with difficult decisions, he would seek advice from officials along with his own sources.

M bovis was an early and significant challenge for the government. As it debated whether to eradicate or learn to live with the disease, O’Connor sought advice from international veterinarians and experts.

“It was a big unknown. No one had tried to eradicate it before.”

As he considered his options, O’Connor took comfort from sector unity in eradicating bovine Tb while noting one significant difference with M bovis – the absence of vectors.

“Here we had a disease contained within cows and spread by direct contact.

“Therefore, if we have good animal traceability and management, it would be possible to eradicate.”

Asked if he lost sleep deliberating whether to attempt eradication or learn to live with M bovis, O’Connor says the answer became obvious.

“It helped I had grown up through the evolution of bovine Tb and the control measures.”

Acknowledging the response was not perfect and extremely traumatic for farming families, O’Connor does not regret his decision.

“It’s been extraordinary successful to this point. No other country has attempted eradication.”

He rejects claims that his government introduced a tsunami of regulations, saying bottom line rules were needed to preserve NZ’s international reputation and trade access.

Two issues drove his approach to freshwater reforms. One was the government’s commitment to improve water quality within a generation.

The other was fear of the potential damage to the country’s reputation should photographs of stock being wintered in unacceptable conditions in Southland appear in overseas media, as was threatened by activists.

O’Connor is unequivocal in his concerns about animal welfare, specifically intensive winter grazing in general, where he saw “shocking images”. 

Accepting these were an exceptional few rather than the majority, he still had little choice but to act.

“Animal welfare is far more significant in the minds of consumers and politicians in first world economies.”

Additionally, water quality was declining despite previous freshwater policies and initiatives such as the Clean Streams Accord.

There was criticism that consultation on freshwater reforms coincided with calving and lambing and that some of the new regulations were unworkable, and required multiple amendments after they were introduced.

“It is never a good time to have tough conversations,” O’Connor says.

Taking a hard line approach to freshwater quality was the right step to take, he says, with evidence that winter grazing practices have improved, and water quality along with them.

Those same drivers were behind his decision to ban live exports, accentuated by the sinking in 2020 of the Gulf Livestock 1 with the loss of 41 crew and 6000 cattle.

O’Connor had already been questioning whether returns from live animal exports were worth the risk to the welfare of stock as ships sailed through the tropics.

“They have attempted to increase standards of ventilation, supply of water and volume of feed, but it is still impossible to guarantee the welfare of animals.” 

National, ACT and NZ First have all vowed to re-open live animal exports, but O’Connor says only a small number of farmers, including his own brother, would benefit.

“I hope the change in government will not undermine our international reputation, for [the sake of] a short-term sugar hit.”

Elements of the Labour Government’s consultation process with the primary sector have been roundly criticised, but O’Connor has never shied away from blunt, open conversations.

“In politics you have to be robust enough to have discussions, but ultimately it is a two-way thing.”

The view that the government is out to get farming or undermine its viability is “inaccurate and irrational, especially given our commitment and assistance that has delivered a 50% increase in exports earnings in six years”.

O’Connor previously told Farmers Weekly that primary sector leaders have struggled with the pressures of representing the views of their members and the reality of what can be achieved.

That was apparent during the debate over He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN), where the proposal was eventually rejected after creating tension between Beef + Lamb NZ and DairyNZ.

He recently told primary sector leaders being criticised by their members to “harden up”.

Describing his relationship with sector groups as robust, O’Connor says some of the reaction to HWEN from producer groups was predictable and gave farmers misleading information as critics had not clearly explained their positions to levy payers.

Their positions also did not reflect those of global consumers who want food producers to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Following the failure of HWEN, in August O’Connor released new emissions reduction and pricing policies.

He said at the time that the government had listened, was being flexible and was accommodating issues raised by HWEN members on timelines and a framework to determine the farm-level levy price.

It hasn’t found universal favour among the HWEN partners.

Questions were asked about the workload when Prime Minister Chris Hipkins earlier this year gave O’Connor the trade portfolio alongside agriculture. 

O’Connor sees benefits from one minister having agriculture and trade given the interconnectedness and says he found the trade role challenging but rewarding, especially negotiating free trade agreements with the UK and EU.

While disappointed at the level of access achieved for beef and dairy in the agreement, O’Connor says it reflects the complexity of the market.

He believes a free trade agreement between NZ and India is possible but will take time and require the quiet building of relationships and partnerships.

“It is doable but it will not happen overnight.”

Other successes he lists include attracting people to the primary sector, establishing a farm advisory service, supporting agricultural courses in schools, preserving vocational training at Taratahi and Telford rural campuses and helping communities deal to wilding pines.

A government-funded farm advisory service has attracted criticism, but O’Connor says it will complement private sector advisers by giving access to those farmers who cannot afford them.

After the election, in which he lost his West Coast-Tasman seat to National’s Maureen Pugh, O’Connor hopped on his motorcycle and toured the South Island, saying it provides relaxation and allows him to interact with voters.

“I stopped and had a coffee in Omakau [in Central Otago] and it was invaluable, meeting and having a discussion with senior and respected agriculture leaders.

“I’ve always advocated that in politics everything you learn is of value.”

Without the pressure of ministerial office, O’Connor wants to spend more time with his family and in his electorate, and he will have a role helping to  rebuild his battered party

There is also a substantive list of jobs to do on his 8ha lifestyle block in Tasman’s Upper Moutere, and helping out on the family’s West Coast farm.

Asked for his message to the primary sector, O’Connor says it is to always look ahead.

While that can be difficult when weighed down by debt and the challenges of the season and climate, it is crucial to show there is a future.

“It is most important component for our future is people, to encourage young people and assist and educate them.”

 O’Connor, 65, has returned to Parliament off the list for his 11th term as an MP. As for his future, he says he is undecided.

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