New government needs to release the uncertainty handbrake

By Andrew Hoggard, President Federated Farmers of NZ


As politicians engage in a last-week frenzy of campaigning and sniping and mall walkabouts, it’s now up to the voters.  Surely there’s enough at stake this election to galvanise even the most jaded elector into exercising their democratic right. 

COVID-19 and our push for economic recovery is just another reason why we need MPs who will listen carefully, work hard and put pragmatism ahead of rigid ideology.

Farmers, like all New Zealanders, are vitally interested in Saturday’s result.  The fact that agricultural issues have gained more of the spotlight on the hustings and in the televised debates this time around than in some elections past is probably due to recognition that we need thriving primary industries if we’re to dig our way out of the pandemic financial hole, and start to pay back some of the billions of dollars borrowed since March.

Federated Farmers has hammered three key issues that the nation needs to get right if we’re to look after our producers, the backbone of our exports and our environment.  Whatever government dominates the front benches after the weekend, we need:

  1. A review of the national freshwater regulations, and changes to those components that won’t work.  Blanket, prescriptive and blunt national rules will never be as effective as targeted, catchment-based approaches that put workability on the ground at the core.
  2. A complete overhaul of the cumbersome and costly Resource Management Act, but with retention of the ‘effects-based’ ethos, and the requirement to balance economic as well as environmental, social and cultural wellbeings.  Regional and District Plans should provide a smoother and less expensive pathway for activities to occur, with any requirements for resource consent to be better aligned with the scale of the activity’s potential environmental impact.
  3. Progress – but also recognition of the science – on greenhouse gas emissions.  Latest scientific modelling concludes that biogenic methane reductions of 10% by 2050 are more than enough for New Zealand’s net livestock methane emissions to no longer contribute to additional global warning.

On these fronts and others, we need policies that are achievable, practical and well-grounded in science. 

The Government has hurried in new freshwater regulations as if we were starting from a basis of no rules.  Pretty much all of our regions already had freshwater rules in place (or have been strengthening them) tailored to their particular topography and environmental characteristics; it has taken councils tens of millions of dollars to carefully consult their communities on them and bring them into regional plans.  Now the government has dreamed up a whole new regime than in many cases will require councils to waste time and ratepayers’ money to do it all over again, in effect to achieve the same thing.

The same with the RMA.  The RMA has many problems, including a massively costly and unproductive industry that has grown up around it, and we agree that it has not delivered as intended when passed in 1991.  But like it or not we have now had nearly thirty years of plans, policies, consents and caselaw, all of which have an effects-based ethos.  Moving away from that approach without measuring up costs and benefits of radical change could risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.

On climate change, the current methane reduction target is 24-47% by 2050.  The lower range is twice what it needs to be to have no additional warming effect on the planet, and will disadvantage our international competitiveness.  And the upper range is twice that again.  Which will apply?

Say our scientists find a methane inhibitor that can be delivered if a farmer invests in an under-cover feeding system.  It might just be feasible with a 24% methane target, but are you going to invest in that system when a 47% target may apply, which you haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving?

The stress of uncertainty not only takes a toll on mental wellbeing when livelihoods are at stake, it also undermines confidence.  Why would a farmer invest in upgrading a milking shed, in new technology or in hiring some extra staff and training them when they don’t know what extra costs are coming at them in a few years from new regulations, requirements for consents and rates bills.

Some might argue uncertainty in the modern world is just a fact of life but while it is easy for governments to commission working groups to produce glossy aspirational visions and strategies for the future and then to promise the earth, the lack of delivery in their implementation risks putting the skids under progress.  

A key problem is that not enough politicians and the people advising them have practical experience and knowledge either in agriculture or even the private sector as employers or business owners.  But that’s where groups like us are here to help.  We have that practical experience and knowledge.

Federated Farmers wishes all the best to whichever MPs get to toast their election success on Saturday night.  We look forward to working with you in the three years ahead – there’s a mountain of work to do if we’re to achieve the right settings and certainty the primary sector needs.