Dr William Rolleston's opening address to Federated Farmers of New Zealand's Conference 2017

Member of National Council, Ladies and Gentlemen

It gives me great pleasure to be delivering this speech to you today.

Six years ago Bruce Wills and I, with the support of our boards, set out on a journey to change the way Federated Farmers engaged with our stakeholders and how we addressed the challenges farmers are facing.  I said in my campaign speech at that time that Federated Farmers were visible but we needed to become credible.  I said that I brought a science perspective and that we needed a voice the politicians can understand and respect - much of that we now take for granted, so we have come a long way in those six years.

There have certainly been challenges – earthquakes, floods, drought, snow and low dairy prices to name a few.

I have continued to push the Federation to develop an Adverse Event Network to help us in many of these situations.  I am grateful to the generous donors who supported us in the North Canterbury earthquake and the Edgecumbe flood.  Their generosity has allowed us to be more effective in our response, recovery and our capability building.  We are also grateful to MPI for their financial support to allow us to provide response and recovery in the form of our 0800 number and the work which flows from that. 

MPI recognises that we work better together as a team and their support reflects that, just as it does with the progress we are making to work as an industry team in biosecurity through the Government Industry Agreements.  It goes without saying that any Ag Team needs Federated Farmers, not just as a member but often to provide the leadership to draw the others together.

We are also grateful to FMG, who have been a solid and reliable partner through these challenges and who are providing considerable support as we prepare for the next adverse event.  It shows how well-served farmers are by organisations such as FMG when you see their focus has been on getting their customers back in business rather than simply minimising claims.  Federated Farmers are proud to have FMG as strategic partners, we are proud to have been part of their creation and we are proud of their co-operative spirit.

Just over a week ago while I was on the other side of the world my family stood with the Crown at Parihaka to offer an apology for its ransacking 136 years ago.  My great grandfather, William Rolleston, was minister of Native Affairs at the time and to discharge his cabinet responsibility he signed the declaration to occupy Parihaka but then, beca4se he d5sagreed, promptly resigned, returning to Wellington before the new minister Bryce let the soldiers have their heads.  

My family found the Maori at Parihaka to be dignified, gracious and forgiving.  Mana is a word aptly attributed to many Maori I have met during my presidency.

In 1868 my grandfather said this in Parliament:
“We found here a race ……. having great capabilities for cultivation of the mind, with all the reasoning and debating powers which in modern European nations was the result of only a great labour and study, a race deeply imbued with ancestral pride, ……. a love of their country which is surpassed by no nation in the world, a deep attachment to the soil on which they lived their daily lives, …...  And, Sir, how have we dealt with these natives?  We have taken away their pride in martial conquest by the establishment of British law, we have destroyed their chieftainship, and we have made no provision to supply them with anything to take the place of the associations to which they are most closely bound.”

Last year I set up a provincial presidents’ iwi group to discuss the issues of water and governance related to iwi.  This group has yet to report back but I reiterate here that finding a suitable path through these issues will be a challenge for farmers.  Solutions have to be right for farmers and they have to be lasting as good people come and go.  I offer these views:
  • Governance must have the proper democratic checks and balances and be constituted in a way to avoid conflicts of interest.
  • If any settlement over water is considered, that is a matter for iwi and the Crown but any solution should not create a further grievance.  That is it should not create a grievance with farmers.
  • Third the future should provide us with equal opportunity and a level playing field.  We should operate under the same rules.  To do otherwise is not a recipe for simplicity, equity nor harmony.
Farming has been under attack recently but my experience with the World Farmers Organisation has shown me that anti-farming campaigns, particularly campaigns against livestock farming and monocultures – so called industrial farming - are an issue for farmers in many parts of the world.

The term Dirty Dairying is an invention of Fish and Game – the statutory body charged with managing our inland fisheries and game.  The government should seriously look at splitting the Fish and Game licence fee into two parts making that part related to advocacy optional.

But it is the multinational organisation Greenpeace which has brought the international campaign against farming to our shores.  Their anti-dairy fundraising ad campaign was sensationalist but unfortunately for DairyNZ the Advertising Standards Authority did not have to consider if it was factual.  So just what record does Greenpeace have when it comes to the facts?

A scientist recently and bravely created the headline “Greenpeace Lying for Financial Gain”, slamming Greenpeace claims that seismic surveying was harming whales.  It is not the first time Greenpeace have been pulled up for being loose with the facts.  In 1995 they finally apologised for misleading claims in the battle over the Brent Spar oil rig decommissioning in Europe. 

Last year 107 Nobel Laurates – one third of all those living –wrote to Greenpeace to demand they change their position on genetic modification, particularly opposition to golden rice developed to combat blindness and death in up to 500,000 children per year through vitamin A deficiency. They called on governments around the world to reject Greenpeace’s campaign against genetic modification. They ended their letter saying: “how many poor people must die before this is a crime against humanity”. 

Strong words from some of the world’s greatest minds.  

Recently the Environmental Defence Society, a Auckland environmental NGO which has a lot to say about the Mackenzie, claimed in relation to Plan Change 13 that intensification was occurring in the Mackenzie “most notably [due to ] dairy” when in fact dairy conversions have been in North Otago around Omarama and there is not yet one dairy farm in the plan change area.

My point is that bad news travels fast and can be highly effective in influencing public perceptions even if it is not right.  I call it post factual science. It is much harder for good news to penetrate.
We have chosen not to tackle these negative campaigns head on.  They are doing enough damage to themselves without us legitimising them with airtime.

If I can use an analogy from the America’s Cup – we have avoided the tacking duel.  It was tried a decade ago and we discovered that our political and social capital is eroded much more quickly than the NGOs.

Instead we have decided to take a split tack at the bottom mark and are looking for that favourable wind-shift.

I am convinced that that wind shift is happening and I am getting constant feedback to that effect.  Dealing with these anti-farming campaigns is not just a matter for Federated Farmers, it is a matter for all decent New Zealanders.  Programmes like the Sunday ‘Flinty’ episode activated farmers and that was a good thing.  We are also hearing others from outside farming, including those highly respected in society, repeat our messages.

This does not mean we can relax but we do have an opportunity to do the right thing.  

On the ground farmers are doing the right thing.

Dairy farmers have spent over one billion dollars fencing rivers, riparian planting and improving effluent management.  Their dryland cousins have been the main contributors to the establishment of QEII covenants protecting private land for conservation at a real and opportunity cost of 1.2 to 1.4 billion dollars.  Our levy bodies spend millions of dollars on research, much of it now focused on water issues.  Catchment by catchment farmers and other locals are working together to come up with solutions which are sensible, practical and affordable.  

It is at the catchment level that progress is really happening and it is at catchment level that farmers have strength, feet on the ground and skin in the game.  NGOs cannot or chose not to engage at catchment level and that is to the detriment of real progress.  Instead they are reverting to their old tricks of dragging farmers and councils to court over technicalities as we have seen in the Horizons situation – stalling real action on the ground.  The NGOs may be right in law but we are beginning to ask, is the law itself right.  Is the law right when councils become hamstrung, frustrated and terrified of making a legal mistake because they will be pounced on.

While Bruce put our collective hand up and said we are part of the problem and we want to be part of the solution I have added the science dimension to our argument.  We have been the dripping voice of reason. 

We are not perfect but we are on a journey.  In sailing parlance we will drop off our foils from time to time but our farmers are the real Team New Zealand and we need the rest of New Zealand to get behind us.

In my campaign speech six years ago I said that I wanted our children to choose agriculture not because they had to but because they want to.  Not because they have no other option but rather because it is the best option for our most capable.

Technology and the intellectual challenge is drawing our young back into the industry with student rates starting to climb.  This is a positive sign.

There are challenges ahead and the work is never done.  Our funding model needs serious attention and we need support not competition from our levy paying bodies, recognising we all have a part to play in getting farmers where they need to go.  Farm amalgamation has had a significant effect on membership numbers.  There should be an expectation that one membership is one milk pickup, ten thousand stock units or 500 arable hectares.  You can argue the numbers.  We should also consider what are the activities we do that would be better suited to a levy so we are all paying for the benefit Federated Farmers provides?

We need to continue to drive down our environmental footprint to face the challenge of synthetic foods and we need to explore what opportunity that new industry will bring.  We need to continue to push for a better scientific capability and for all the tools of modern science to be available to us or we will be left behind.

In my campaign speech six years ago I said that most of all this organisation is about people.  Farming is about people.  It is to those people I now turn.

We have built a solid, capable and respected organisation.  That is clearly evidenced by those who are choosing to come back to work for us.  

As my presidency draws to a close I want to take the opportunity to thank each and every board member for the loyalty and support they have given me over my time as president.  I also want to thank our dedicated, professional and hard-working staff.  Federated Farmers has become a fun place to be.  It now exudes a confidence and a capacity which is a platform, based on science and evidence, for real influence in the future whichever party is in government.  I want to thank you, the members of the National Council, who have asked the hard questions and held us to account but who are learning the roles of customer, shareholder and governor and your part in it and who have given support when it has counted.  I have made many friends over the years and together we have made a difference.  
Membership is now showing signs of recovery after the dairy downturn and non-member support is increasing.  The leadership of the board, and the dedication of each and every staff member, have brought the organisation to this place and I am grateful to have been part of the journey.  I am looking forward to the future but I leave with a tinge of sadness to be stepping off the bus at such an exciting time.  I leave with an appreciation that I have led a great organisation which I have had the privilege of seeing from the inside.

Thank you