by Steven Cranston
With the Beef + Lamb New Zealand levy vote just around the corner and a mountain of policy issues starting to pile up, it would seem the opportune time to have an open discussion on farmer advocacy. There is growing dissatisfaction with the performance of the levy bodies and Federated Farmers. New groups like Fifty Shades of Green and Groundswell NZ are popping up to be that voice where existing advocacy groups are absent.
The advocacy model seems messy and disjointed with different groups at times pulling in different directions. This is not helped by the fact no single group has a clear mandate to speak on behalf of all farmers. The levy bodies, DairyNZ and B+LNZ, which have assumed leading roles in advocacy are essentially there by default. Levy votes do not separate out advocacy from other functions such as research and extension, an area where the levy bodies excel. The good work being done on research and extension shields these groups from accountability on their more debatable advocacy efforts.
The 2020 DairyNZ levy referendum shows only 4600 farmers, or 39% of the total eligible voters, supported the levy. A percentage that would likely decrease further if there were a specific question on advocacy support. Yet they are probably the dominant industry voice on policy matters.
On a pure numbers basis Federated Farmers have a stronger case to be the voice for farmers, they have 13,000 members who by virtue of paying a subscription have given Federated Farmers a clear mandate to speak on their behalf. But where are the Feds? They don’t appear to be the force they once were and almost seem side-lined from many of the key policy decisions. The problem with having too many voices is that the Government will naturally seek out the organisations which are more aligned with their policy agenda to ‘represent’ farmers. Being a vocal critic of Government policy can be counterproductive if you still want a seat at the table. It is the classic divide and conquer strategy and it is being used effectively by this Government.
Is the willingness of the levy bodies to push back against bad policy undermined by their desire to continue receiving Government funding and collaboration on research and extension initiatives? On key issues like emissions they seem largely in step with Government plans and have made little attempt to promote farmer’s strong scientific argument for an alternative approach. They have found themselves on the wrong side of the debate on land assessments for Significant Natural Areas. There are even cases where the levy bodies have walked back positions they had previously agreed with farmers, such as B+LNZ’s U-turn on supporting mandatory audited Farm Environment Plans. Levy bodies are required under the Commodity Levies Act 1990 to adequately reflect the views and interests of those paying the levy, not dictate to farmers what they believe is best for them.
Advocacy issues run deeper and wider into the other plethora of organisations said to be representing farmers. The Food and Fiber Leaders Forum is a collective of industry bodies facilitated by Mike Peterson. Mike is also an independent director for Dryland Carbon, an entity set up by the likes of Air New Zealand and Z Energy to acquire farmland for the purpose of Carbon farming. What stance will this group take on the treatment of Methane vs CO2?
We don’t know because minutes from meetings and lobbying positions are withheld. The climate policy group He Waka Eke Noa (We are in this together) which is a similar collective of industry bodies equally lacks transparency. Why the secrecy? If a group is representing farmers, is it not reasonable to expect open access to all the positions being taken on our behalf?
A single lobby voice for farmers would force the Government to address concerns head on. It could allow advocacy to be robust without compromising funding and cooperation in other areas. What form this voice should take is something that would need careful consideration. Any streamlining of the advocacy model would need to ensure fair representation to the various agricultural sectors who at times have conflicting priorities.
Potential reform solutions could include levy bodies falling in behind and supporting a reformed and reinvigorated Feds, or potentially a new lobby arm of the levy bodies could be established to work on behalf of the entire industry. This branch could be voted on separately during the levy referendum which would provide it a clear mandate and direct accountability to farmers.
The agriculture sector provides an invaluable contribution to the NZ economy and it needs a fit for purpose lobbying model to ensure that is the case for years to come.
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- Steven Cranston is a Waikato-based agricultural and environmental consultant.