The two agriculture representatives from National and Labour have gone head-to-head debating their parties’ positions on primary sector policies.
Minister for Agriculture and Trade Damien O’Connor and National’s agriculture spokesperson Todd McClay, a former trade minister in the Key and English government, debated issues such as climate change and trade at the opening session of the Red Meat Sector Conference in Auckland recently.
O’Connor has been agriculture minister since Labour came to power in 2017 and picked up the trade portfolio from David Parker after the 2020 election.
McClay became agriculture spokesperson after former National leader, Todd Muller, announced his intention to retire earlier this year.
One of the biggest issues facing the sector is climate change.
In partnership with the sector and Māori, the government set up the He Waka Eke Noa primary sector partnership in 2019 to develop recommendations on an alternative pricing system for agricultural emissions.
If an alternative isn’t reached, agriculture emissions will be automatically included in the emissions trading scheme in 2025.
McClay has previously said the partnership is “dead”, with his party saying it would push pricing back until 2030 if it came to power.
Asked by debate moderator Tova O’Brien whether Labour would consider pushing its target out, O’Connor said big producers, such as Cargill and Tyson Foods, have targets to reduce their emissions by 2030.
“We wouldn’t have even started. Absolutely crazy. We would be behind the eight ball.”
O’Connor said New Zealand is still on target for 2025 to have the “lowest possible price”, with the money collected reinvested back into technologies to help reduce carbon footprint.
McClay wouldn’t say whether the party could kick its timeframe out even further. He said that if a price is all that is put in place, farmers will have to lower production to lower emissions.
“It just doesn’t make sense to close farms down in New Zealand so someone else can pick up that production. We should be world leaders in innovation in ways to increase high quality food production and lower our carbon footprint,” he said.
“We shouldn’t be world leaders in exporting jobs and production overseas.”
Asked about carbon farming and what Labour would do to restrict its growth, O’Connor said the party had “closed the door” to foreign investment, and foreign investors must now prove there is a net benefit to NZ.
The government has given local councils powers to decide which land can be used for plantation and carbon forests, through the resource consent process.
“The right tree in the right place has always been the mantra – it hasn’t always been the reality,” O’Connor said.
McClay said that under National there would be a moratorium for three years with no full-farm conversions on high-quality land going into the Emissions Trading Scheme.
The meat industry has long called for a better gateway for halal butchers to come into NZ. The role is critical for meat companies to meet market requirements for halal meat.
McClay hinted it is something his party is considering.
“So, I think the time to look at that is now … it needs a really, really good look, but our immigration policy is still to come out.”
He went on to say: “The case has been made and we’ll make announcements.”
During O’Connor’s tenure as trade minister, he has signed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the United Kingdom and the European Union.
The EU deal allows only an extra 10,000t of NZ beef into the market over seven years and has copped criticism from the sector, with Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva previously describing it as “poor quality”.
O’Connor defended the deal, saying it wasn’t what they set out to achieve, but there are a lot of other opportunities in the deal for NZ.
McClay and O’Connor clashed over whether an FTA could be struck with India.
McClay said when he was trade minister, the government at the time put “a huge amount of work in” and got negotiations going.
India is a country with a “very large” population and it is starting to do trade deals.
“For the next National government, a high-quality free trade agreement with India will be a strategic priority for us.”
O’Connor said while India is a focus, the government has to be realistic and not “promise you something we can’t get”.
He’ll be travelling there soon to help build that relationship between the two countries, which is critical to starting conversations.
“And ultimately, it may lead to a free trade agreement.”