Monday, February 26, 2024

Mark’s set, ready to hit the ground running 

Neal Wallace
A sign of its support for agriculture or a way to accommodate coalition dynamics? Either way, the appointment of three associate ministers of agriculture is unprecedented.
A sign of its support for agriculture or a way to accommodate coalition dynamics? Either way, the appointment of three associate ministers of agriculture is unprecedented.
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This is the final interview in a three-article series on Associate Agriculture Ministers. Neal Wallace talks to Mark Patterson. You can read the first two profiles here: Nicola Grigg and interview Andrew Hoggard.

As difficult as it was at the time, losing his Parliamentary seat in the 2020 election proved beneficial, Mark Patterson concedes.

He had been elected to parliament in the 2017 election, but after the 2020 election drubbing he returned to his farm at Lawrence in South Otago and involved himself in grassroots politics, serving as Otago Federated Farmers chair.

“Having had a taste of national politics then getting kicked out, it gave me a chance to reflect, to go back and get involved in the community.

“I feel better prepared now than if I had been trapped in the beltway,” Patterson says.

“I come into this confident that my background will help me make a positive contribution.”

He hoped he would have a senior role when NZ First was made part of the three-party government coalition.

And if that was to eventuate, he deliberated, he privately favoured an associate agriculture and rural affairs post.

That is exactly what NZ First leader Winston Peters negotiated, and Patterson was named minister for rural communities and associate minister of agriculture.

Patterson says he and his fellow associate agriculture ministers, ACT’s Andrew Hoggard and National’s Nicola Grigg, represent “a pretty strong bench”. They will all report to Agriculture Minister Todd McClay who, as trade minister and associate foreign affairs minister as well, is likely to regularly travel internationally.

Having three associate ministers “sends a strong signal of the weight we put on agriculture, how important it is to NZ and how we are trying to utilise our skills there”, Patterson says.

Rural Communities sits within the Ministry of Primary Industries and plays an advocacy role but does not have a budget.

Patterson says it has a rural-proofing function, to ensure implications for the sector are considered in all cabinet decisions.

“My team’s role is to make sure issues that impact rural NZ are well understood by people making decisions.”

That involves a myriad of issues, from health, police and education to infrastructure.

One of his focuses will be to improve mental health for rural communities, and he also wants the sector to gets its share of infrastructure improvement.

“Too often income that is generated in the provinces is spent in the cities on mega-projects.”

Patterson has already been knocking on the doors of ministers, reminding them of the needs of rural communities, such as telling Police Minister Mark Mitchell that rural communities want a share of the 500 new police officers he wants to recruit.

“If I can use my influence to elevate these issues then that is a positive thing.”

Patterson considers the pillars of his portfolio to be access to primary health care – especially mental health – as well as education, infrastructure and connectivity. 

Measuring success will be difficult given the breadth of the portfolio. 

At the time of writing, Patterson’s delegations as an associate agriculture minister were still to be confirmed, but he says there are three areas needing attention: water, specifically quality, quantity and storage; agricultural greenhouse gas emissions; and forestry – having the right trees planted in the right places.

Patterson says the government’s approach will be a higher trust model than previously, which he argues is required for the sector to grow and to add value.

“The primary sector is the only one where we are internationally competitive and NZ needs the primary sector to play to it strengths, to be the best we can be.”

Patterson has specific interests in irrigation, water storage and says the Regional Infrastructure Fund, which NZ First negotiated as part of the coalition agreement, will play a key role in this.

Other uses for the fund include improving flood protection and climate change mitigation.

He calls pending changes to the Resource Management Act “a step change” as it will make more use of fast-track consenting, which will benefit regional communities.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to get anything done in NZ. It gets wound up in red tape and reports.”

He sees fast-tracked consenting for infrastructure such as the Waitaha hydroelectric dam on the West Coast, which had consent declined, but also to allow greater mineral and resource extraction.

Patterson acknowledges expectations for the coalition government are high.

“Farmers won’t get everything they want because there is a broader picture and general direction of travel that we can’t turn back from.”

But he wants more progress and less bureaucracy than was the case in the past few years.

This is the final interview in a three-article series on Associate Agriculture Ministers. Neal Wallace talks to Mark Patterson. You can read the first two profiles here: Nicola Grigg and interview Andrew Hoggard.

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