The appointment of New Zealand’s next agriculture minister is looming as one of prime minister-elect Christopher Luxon’s more politically sensitive portfolio allocations.
Primary sector leaders expect Todd McClay, the party’s agriculture spokesperson, to be given the role of minister for primary industries, but there are questions over whether he will also have trade. He was also the party’s spokesperson and was minister from 2015-17.
Agriculture and Trade Minister Damien O’Connor currently holds both portfolios.
Eric Roy, a former National Party MP, assistant Speaker of the House and Southland farmer, said his party has worked hard to reconnect with its traditional agricultural support base, a constituency also targeted by ACT.
He said ACT believes it can capture farmer support given simmering anger at legislative changes implemented by Labour, the rise of Groundswell and Andrew Hoggard’s switch from Federated Farmers president to ACT politician.
“ACT will want to lock in that rural base rather than rely on what you could call its urban well-to-do liberals. They want to broaden their base.”
While the final makeup of the incoming government awaits the outcome of special votes and ongoing coalition talks, Roy said Luxon could potentially use an under-secretary or associate agriculture role to accommodate a coalition partner.
Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford said Luxon is unlikely to give the role of agriculture minister to a coalition partner, given the party’s effort to recapture the rural vote and its large intake of rural MPs at this election.
He said McClay is the likely front runner for the role, and his seniority may also assist Langford’s other hope – that agriculture becomes a front bench portfolio.
Nicola Grigg, National’s spokesperson for rural communities, animal welfare, biosecurity, food safety and women, and associate agriculture spokesperson, has reportedly performed well despite only entering Parliament in 2020.
Former National Party agriculture minister David Carter said Grigg deserves an associate minister role.
“She has done well, she is well connected to rural NZ and has aspirations of being an agriculture minister,” he said.
However, promotion for Grigg could become a victim of the needs of forming a coalition.
He believes McClay deserves to have both the agriculture and trade portfolios.
“My guess is that trade and agriculture will stay together with McClay, who I think has done credible job since taking on agriculture.”
Both ACT and NZ First, with whom Luxon will potentially form a coalition, have high profile agriculture leaders in ACT’s Hoggard and second-term MP Mark Cameron, while Mark Paterson is a second-term NZ First MP and a former president of Otago Federated Farmers.
Based on the election night results 18, or 15%, of the 120 Members of Parliament now have direct links to farming or horticulture.
Trade sector leaders are comfortable with having a minister for both trade and agriculture, saying an understanding of agricultural production is of benefit in trade negotiations.
Catherine Beard, Export NZ’s advocacy director, said as a former trade minister, Todd McClay would hit the ground running if he were re-appointed to the role.
She said agriculture has not been well understood in Wellington.
“The agricultural sector would gain from a minister of trade who can see an end result of where goods go, what the challenges are and the importance to the goods of the operating environment and people who produce those goods.”
The two portfolios come with a heavy workload, but Beard said it can be done by the right individual with support from associates.
Stephen Jacobi, executive director of the NZ International Business Forum, said trade and agriculture are indelibly linked, with the Ministry for Primary Industries overseeing product quality, standards and certification.
The workload will be heavy, especially as the incoming prime minister wants to grow the economy through greater trade opportunities, but also because several international trade agreements are looking to expand, needing renewal or will be subject to new agreements.
Jacobi said exporters want a minister who will travel regularly, hustle for them and lead trade missions to do the groundwork for expanded trade.
“We want a very busy trade minister.”