Federated Farmers’ president Andrew Hoggard says the government’s siloed, haphazard and rushed approach to policy is causing undue stress:
The phrase the ‘winter of discontent” is a well-known line from Shakespeare’s Richard the Third.
It also aptly describes the sentiment amongst a fair number of us in the rural community.
Despite fairly solid market returns for many of our farm products, it feels like the so-called “Ute Tax” may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many, thus we see protests planned for next week.
The Ute Tax, I feel, while only a tiny financial burden compared to many other issues, has just highlighted in their minds that the Wellington Beltway thinkers just don’t get regional New Zealand. ‘Rural Proofing’ is a nice phrase to use but not something that actually gets practised.
The issues I see right now and want to raise are around those bigger picture items and my concern around where it is all heading – and more precisely the pace it is occurring – across the backdrop of the new Covid-19 world, and the shortage of labour caused by border restrictions.
I am the sort of person who generally just wants to get stuff done, to not bugger around and dilly dally but just get on with the job.
But I always try and temper that with what resources do I have available to do the task, and I also like to work methodically to get one thing done and then move to the next. My mantra being, do a job once, do a job right. The idea of starting something new while you have previous projects incomplete with them metaphorically being held together with baling twine isn’t smart.
If we look across the spectrum of work that is occurring right now we see a rush of legislation and change; we see legislation that has been poorly thought out and is requiring constant work to fix aspects of it; we have longstanding workstreams, that require already stretched resources and we have new proposals coming to the fore, which will stretch those resources even more.
As a stocktake of what is out there, we of course have the NPS on freshwater and the NES with its focuses on winter grazing, stock exclusion and Nitrate limits. We all know the winter grazing rules changes had to be changed within days of their release, due to the impracticability, and we are now in a limbo space with other aspects of the rules and potential changes.
The stock exclusion rules also were found wanting, capturing far more land than was ever intended, and the Minister recognizing that the low slope map was not fit for purpose.
With the Nitrate rules we have a one size fits all approach, which could have detrimental impact on many farming enterprises in certain catchments. Then with the NPS we have the need for all regional councils to have complying plans by 2024. This is a monstrous level of work.
In some cases, councils have just finished putting together plans which have taken up much time from councils and communities, as well as resources. These plans and the money spent on them are effectively being flushed down the toilet. This need for new plans has led to large rate increases across the country, Environment Canterbury alone predicting it will cost them in the order of a staggering $20 million for the planning part alone.
In the last few weeks we have had the first stage of the replacement of the RMA announced. We see many of the same challenges in this that we saw with the Essential Freshwater package. A one sizes fits all approach with rules, new terms and definitions, but also we have now a proposal that new RMA style plans will be done by 14 appointed panels. If this is going to be the case why didn’t we do the RMA changes first before the Essential Freshwater legislation?
We have regional councils in a mad panic raising rates to pay for work on replacement plans which in a number of cases were only recently completed. Then what happens to these new plans in the new system? Are they wasted? Will everything have to be redone in the new setups?
To meet the 2024 deadline regional councils are likely be already thinking about how they can cut corners and rush through community consultation to get these plans done.
Now with a replacement to the RMA and the work they are doing potentially being another waste of time, what motivation is there to do a proper job?
Added to all this we have the 3 waters proposal which will see further functions removed from local government on top of that happening in the RMA reform. Then supposedly we will have a review on local government. What on earth is going to be left of local government to actually review? Again, it feels like everything is being done in the wrong order.
We all agree water quality isn’t where we want it to be, but let’s not forget its still amongst the best in the OECD, and I have seen a real mindset change in farmers over my time farming. Let’s channel that energy rather than drain it out, rushing down a chaotic path forward.
That sounds like enough right? But we are probably only halfway there. Another major piece of work that’s happening is the Primary Sector Climate Change Commitment or He Waka Eke Noa.
As the government has claimed, this work is world leading. Other countries talk the talk with regard to agriculture and climate change, and individuals within those countries love to put out lofty aspirations – but with likely little intent to achieve, or if it is it’s on the back of massive government subsidies. But no other country is embarking on a commitment like HWEN.
The next six to nine months are going to be critical for HWEN, as despite a price not being required till 2025, the mechanism has to be in place in the next nine months. Getting this mechanism correct is imperative, it needs to be a tool that encourages those who could do better to do so, and for those that are doing a good job it leaves them alone.
We need to ensure that any price mechanism is correctly set so that we don’t have emissions leakage offshore. Reducing production in the most efficient country in the world to have it replaced offshore makes no sense. If we get this price mechanism wrong then we get a situation that could inadvertently cause us to make changes on our farm that may reduce overall emissions but perhaps lose some of the efficiency and world leading footprint. Let’s not forget it’s that footprint which is what these supposedly discerning customers are after.
We get this wrong and it could have major implications for our economy and not do diddly squat with regards to climate change. So, industry and government officials need the time to focus on this in the coming months, not be bogged down with even more legislation and work.
What else? Well, we have the NPS for Indigenous biodiversity on its way, and the Minister has stated his vision, that he hopes that this can provide support for farmers with SNAs and even maybe reward them, which would be good. We still need to ensure that it applies to truly significant natural areas, and that existing use rights are guaranteed. Biodiversity shouldn’t be seen as a threat for farmers, we should we viewing it as a positive and my hope is that the legislation can arrive at a place where that is the case.
Another piece of legislation, while only affecting a small number of farmers, is the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Act. We call it a “a solution looking for a problem” in our submission, but it is now coming back to the House. We had hoped it might just disappear somewhere in the bowels of parliament but no such luck. Even though it only affects a small number, it is a truly appalling piece of legislation, that sets very bad precedents around property rights.
There’s a glimmer of good news: we have a lot work happening on stuff that I think farmers will actually be happy to see, with data interoperability, combined with farm plans. We saw a glimpse of the potential with the presentation from the Trust Alliance at PINZ. The compliance burden for many of us right now is as annoying as hell, with all the paperwork we have to fill out, and this is only going to grow through freshwater rules and climate change. But not only does data interoperability present the opportunity to reduce that, it will also offer the opportunity for aggregated insights that will actually be of use and value to farmers.
This is work we want to be spending more time on. Add connectivity improvements to that and suddenly farmers and growers are likely in a much better space to be able to handle the issues around water, climate and biodiversity.
Finally, the other aspect I touched on earlier was of course, the labour shortage. The government can’t do much about a global pandemic, but there are some steps it could take that would give people some hope. Firstly, we already have people in the country who are in a limbo land with regards to visas, and are being lured offshore, so let’s stop buggering around, if they are here, have a clean record, have a job – give them residency.
We are short-staffed and we will be looking at ways that we can improve that through local recruitment, but if the whole country is short, I’m not sure that just trying harder is the solution. Really, we need to ensure that the vaccine rollout happens as promptly as it can and we can start at least getting vaccinated working holiday visas happening again from vaccinated countries. They will provide some temporary relief at those really busy times of the year. The other question I have is are we using really the MIQ facilities in the most efficient way? I hear various numbers of up to the likes of 2000 beds empty on any given day. I think what many employers who are struggling want to know right now is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. So what is our plan for re-opening to the world?
The Government needs to understand the burden that is being placed on people in the ag sector right now. Our sector is doing the heavy lifting to bring in export revenue, and yet while our farmers and growers are doing this often short staffed all these other pressures I have just mentioned are weighing down on them and potentially going to add to their workload. For a government that talks about wellbeing a lot, they seem to have forgotten about it with regards to rural NZ.
Overall, my message to the government is we need to organise the workplan better. We have a siloed haphazard approach right now, that is causing stress and anxiety for many. Not just for farmers and growers, but other sectors and quite frankly probably the government’s own officials.
What’s important to do right now? Firstly, the labour shortage, we need to address what we can now, make that staff we have now feel valued and welcomed, this is what other countries are doing, probably not just the ag sector but many businesses just need to see a glimmer of hope. Following on from that, to my mind it’s HWEN, it’s working on getting the low slope map sorted and the winter grazing rules sorted, and the NPS Indigenous Biodiversity sorted with appropriate support for farmers and recognition of their efforts. It’s about really driving forward on the data interoperability work and farm plans, so that the farmers actually have the tools, and also how can we boost the connectivity across the country so more can use the tools. That’s the priority work that the sector and the government should be working on.
Once that is in a good place then let’s look at improving the monitoring of fresh water in this country. We don’t measure nearly enough to get a solid enough picture of whether things are improving or declining. Is the work we are doing with catchment care groups up and down the country having an impact? We know with a few but nowhere near enough. If you’re going to invest your blood sweat and tears into something then you want to know that you’re having an impact.
Once that work is underway, then those items we parked can get moving again, with the exception of Crown Pastoral Land Reform Act that needs to be binned. In terms of the order: how about we focus on the RMA reforms first, get that squared away and then councils will know whether or not they need to bother doing the NPS FW. Might just save a truckload of rate payers’ money that way.
My message to farmers and growers is, we are focused on this stuff and attaining improved outcomes for you. It possibly doesn’t feel like that to many, because we are constantly in discussions on issues such as the Freshwater reforms, climate change, and the labour shortage, and unfortunately giving a day by day account of those exchanges is not really an option, it would potentially put at risk gains we have made.
One comment I would like to reflect on, is a discussion I saw on social media around the stress levels people are feeling because of all of what I just mentioned, and the view of a sharemilker from Taranaki. His attitude was he ignored the media, ignored all the negative stuff on social media, pretty much just seemed to read his Fonterra monthly statement, and spend time with his family, and life was good. So while I think it is important to keep up with events and not totally live in a media blackout, it is important to always put things in perspective. The thing with impractical rules that we discovered in the Horizons region, is that they can be passed, but the attempt at implementing them eventually forces the rule makers to go back and do a relook.
I would just lastly like to thank all the efforts of all our elected representatives that are here, but most importantly the work our staff do, they have been massively under the pump with all this work, and I want to thank you for the outstanding jobs you all do, and we are lucky to have you working for the farmers and growers of New Zealand.