Many of the critics of the erroneously called ‘failed’ policies of the 80s and 90s overlook the fact that the seeds for the problems were planted years earlier.
Those seeds were protectionist policies which provided subsidies for production here and imposed tariffs and import restrictions on goods from overseas.
As a result, producers were divorced from markets and produced far more than we could sell.
Consumers were also worse off. They had less choice and paid more for locally made goods that were often of a much lower standard than imports.
This all put a lot of power in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats and a lot of money in the pockets of the favoured few who had import licences or received subsidies.
It also cost far more than the country could afford and consumers paid twice – first in higher prices and then in higher taxes.
Dismantling all that was painful and nowhere more so than in North Otago where the sudden end of subsidies for primary produce coincided with successive droughts.
At one stage in the 1980s it wasn’t unusual for farmers to get a bill for sending stock to the freezing works because the transport cost more than the animals were worth.
There were predictions farmers would be forced off the land in their hundreds. A few did lose farms but the real devastation was in servicing and supplying businesses and processing.
However, gradually farmers adjusted to the new rules and became stronger for it, helped in North Otago by increased irrigation which drought-proofed the district.
There are arguments about the way the changes were made but nothing will convince me it wasn’t necessary to make them.
Farming, and New Zealand are far better for it.
That is why I have been appalled by the calls here and abroad for a return to the bad old days of protection of local industries and trade restrictions.
We need to be doing what we do best, not protecting local producers of goods others can produce at higher quality and lower prices and we must be free to sell the excess of what we grow so well to the rest of the world.
We consume only about 10% of the food we produce.
Selling the other 90% is one of the major contributors to the country’s wealth.
Successive governments, diplomats and trade negotiators have spent decades fighting for freer trade not just to benefit us but to benefit producers and consumers in other countries as well.
If we start putting up barriers, other countries will retaliate and we will come off far worse than they will.
One of the silver linings to our response to Covid-19 is the reinforcement of New Zealand as a safe country.
That will be a valuable selling point in a world that is aware of new dangers and will be more aware than ever of the importance of food safety.
It would be foolish to do anything to jeopardise that by repeating mistakes that were made in the past, the correcting of which caused so much pain.
Let’s not go back to the bad old days. We must learn from the mistakes, not repeat them.