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The 2023 Red Meat Sector Conference political debate by the key candidates refrained from sharp partisan positions, offered considered positions to generally difficult issues, leaving the audience unsatisfied for the silver bullets they sought

Rural News / opinion
The 2023 Red Meat Sector Conference political debate by the key candidates refrained from sharp partisan positions, offered considered positions to generally difficult issues, leaving the audience unsatisfied for the silver bullets they sought
Minister of Agriculture, Damien O'Connor, and shadow minister Todd McClay

More than 300 people involved in the red meat sector attended the 2023 Red Meat Sector Conference in Auckland this week, the largest ever attendance. The event kicked off with a political debate between Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and National spokesperson Todd McClay, introduced by Beef + Lamb Chair Kait Acland who demanded ‘blood on the floor’ to be extracted by host Tova O’Brien. For those with a love of blood sports the reality was unfortunately much tamer than hoped, with the two politicians behaving in a far more genteel way than we have come to expect from the parliamentary debating chamber.

McClay sympathised with his counterpart’s obligation to defend the indefensible, deciding he was in the wrong political party. Their main points of difference were the entry of farming into the ETS in 2025, if no alternative has been agreed, which the government is clinging to as its default, if a price for emissions fails to be adopted into law under the He Waka Eke Noa sector agreement; ways to limit the conversion of sheep and beef land into forestry; the restriction on migrants to bolster essential workforce shortages; and the limited value of the EU FTA and the failure to negotiate an agreement with India.

McClay reiterated National’s position of no emissions pricing before 2030 because there are no means yet available for farmers to mitigate their emissions. O’Brien kept pressing him on National’s apparent wish to keep kicking the can down the road on this issue, similar to ACT’s wish to tie New Zealand’s response to that of our five main trading partners. The Minister maintained other countries are ahead of us and technologies already exist to mitigate emissions, but need to be brought up to scale. However he also protested the price would only be set at the minimum level necessary to fund industry research, although he did not specify how this figure would be determined.

There was some esoteric debate about the potential of Bovaer which has not yet been approved for use in this country, but which has been seen as a silver bullet for controlling methane emissions. O’Connor made the very reasonable point there is no guarantee it can be applied in a pastoral grazing system.

There was also plenty of debate on forestry conversions on marginal and good pastoral land with McClay trying to clarify how National would restrict them, somehow without impinging on property or Maori ownership rights. In answer to a question from the floor neither speaker was prepared to say what the carbon offset level ought to be compared with carbon emitters’ present ability to offset the full 100%, whereas all other countries except Kazakhstan set this at around 10%.  The Minister argued the government had already introduced adequate restrictions on the sale of sensitive land to overseas buyers for forestry and valuable horticultural land for development.

He defended the government’s position on immigration settings in spite of a shortage of essential workers in such areas as Halal butchers which last year cost the industry an estimated $600 million. He said Covid has created a shortage of workers in many different sectors and the red meat sector has benefited from changed immigration settings to address some of the gaps. He cautioned against New Zealand’s continuing dependence on migrant workers to plug these gaps but without any clear idea how to do this. McClay raised the question of how to incentivise some of the 80,000 on employment benefits to get into work and said National would look at introducing policies to achieve this. There is clearly no short-term fix, so the sector will have to continue training its own replacements.

The EU free trade agreement inspired predictable criticism, both from McClay and from the audience, while O’Connor tried valiantly to portray it as a major win for New Zealand exporters, just not beef producers whose access to that valuable market remains at a fractional percentage of the total. National’s other criticism of the deal is the lack of any provision to renegotiate if another country, for example Australia, achieves a better outcome. That said, the FTA is subject to annual reviews and no doubt this will be brought up regularly at those reviews. The miniscule beef quota is undeniable and it will for ever be a bone of contention for red meat exporters, while every other sector of the economy would agree it was a good outcome.

The lack of a FTA with India also resulted in a great deal of predictable hot air about why it hadn’t happened, what should have or could have been done by successive governments, and what a new government would do. Both these topics would probably have been better left to the presentation on the Monday by New Zealand’s chief trade negotiator Vangelis Vitalis for a less politically emotive and more factual discussion.

The biggest laughs during the debate came during question time. A sheep and beef farmer from Eketahuna, subsequently identified as Safer Farms Chair Lyndy Nelson, asked how Labour would control the campaign by the Greens and The Maori Party for a wealth tax. Instead of taking Tova’s advice and saying the Prime Minister has ruled it out, Minister O’Connor got himself into a hole by arguing New Zealanders did not pay enough tax, although a wealth tax was not party policy. O’Brien neatly summarised this paying more tax was not a winning election pledge which caused much amusement.

Murray Taggart, Alliance Chair, asked why New Zealand insisted on maintaining the 100% carbon offset facility, unlike all our other major trading partners. After lengthy non-committal answers from both the politicians, O’Brien asked him whether he was satisfied by them to which Taggart replied curtly ‘No’ which again attracted a lot of laughs. The debate finished with each speaker having to say something complimentary about the other.

In summary, the debate produced very little heat, a modicum of light and quite a few laughs.

Current schedule and saleyard prices are available in the right-hand menu of the Rural section of this website.

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Looks to me there is some consensus in Ag policy, which is good. Hopefully common sense prevails.

Wealth tax on farms would be a deathnell as many are running at a loss now.

Struggle to see how people expect cheap food without growing their own.