Friday, 28 May 2021

Thank God for the Farmers, Now Bring Back Democracy


Speech to Manawatu Rangitikei Federated Farmers Farmers Forum

David Seymour ACT Leader

Introduction

Thank you very much to Murray Holdaway for inviting me to give this speech. Andrew Hoggard, it is good to see you and thank you for all the articulate work you do representing the farming sector in New Zealand.

Throughout our history, Federated Farmers have played an honourable role in leading New Zealand policy debates. I think of Sir Peter Elworthy, president of the Feds from 1984 to 1988. It was a time of important policy change in New Zealand.

Farming was called the backbone of New Zealand, but was itself propped up by enormous subsidies. When supplementary minimum prices were introduced, every lamb fetched a price underwritten by the Government, regardless of real demand for the product.

It was a useful lesson in human nature. Farmers were farming phantom sheep. An additional 10 million sheep were found until SMPs were abolished, when they disappeared just as magically. It was also a lesson in conserving resources, and how free markets, property rights and conservation go together.

Since the end of subsidies, New Zealand farmers have become the most efficient in the world. Producing a product that the consumer wants to buy at a price they can afford while preserving the land that is their capital stock for producing again next year.

That change was not forced on farmers. Sir Peter told Muldoon it couldn’t work. Take away the subsidies, he said, but let us buy our tractors and other inputs on a world market like everyone else in the free world. Muldoon told him he didn’t understand the New Zealand economy. By that time, Muldoon was the only person left who did.

Of course, the transition came, and it was painful for many. Some still blame Roger Douglas for the change, but they cannot defend the system we had before, or ignore the world-leading success of the system we have now.

The problem is, farmers are simply not recognised for the feats they have undertaken. Too often they are the whipping boys and girls of urban New Zealand, and the politicians who preach to them.

You have to ask yourself, what is the difference between Winston Peters’ long history of attacking Asian immigrants, and the Greens constant refrain of ‘dirty dairy.’ In both cases it is dirty politics, with dirty outcomes for human beings.

ACT’s farmer MP, Mark Cameron, is a real farmer. He milks 300 cows in Ruawai, outside Dargaville. This morning he held up the first calf of the season on his farm, three weeks early. He also knows the reality of the political campaign against farmers.

His daughter came home from school enormously upset. She was made to write an essay about how, not if, farmers were destroying the environment. Imagine a system that taxes you so it can tell your kids you are an eco-terrorist! That is why attitudes need to change.

Thank You from Rural New Zealand

I represent the most urban electorate in New Zealand. Forget Auckland Central, that includes the islands of the Hauraki Gulf. Forget Wellington Central, that includes heaps of farmland, not that most of them have noticed. The Epsom Electorate is only 30 square kilometres. The closest we get to farming is a few boutique sheep in Cornwall Park.

So I feel I’m the right person to say thank you. It took a global pandemic, but we saw the value in food security. I isolated with a vegetarian, but over five weeks I converted them. We are lucky to live in a country that is a net food exporter, oh, and the export receipts haven’t hurt either.

I am sure that Grant Robertson will thank you soon. The hope is that the newfound appreciation of farmers in urban New Zealand might lead to more understanding policy development. Sadly, that has not been the case. If anything, the amount of regulatory impost on farmers has probably accelerated in recent times.

An Avalanche

‘We are facing an avalanche,’ a farmer told me recently. He wasn’t farming in the Southern Alps, he was talking about the regulation facing farmers.

  • Freshwater laws impose one-sized-fits-all restrictions on every farm in New Zealand when, in reality the soils, topography, climate and farming practices mean that the rules are impractical everywhere
  • New biodiversity rules mean you can effectively have your land confiscated. The worst part is the incentives. If you do your bit conserving, or even enhancing biodiversity on your land, you’re more likely to lose control of it
  • The Zero Carbon Act returns the New Zealand economy to central planning, with the Minister of Climate Change able to set ‘budgets’ for each sector’s emissions. Already they are calling for a herd reduction of 15 per cent
  • Since COVID, the Government has made the horticultural industry responsible for the country’s unemployment and welfare problems. Forget supporting our Pacific neighbours. The horticultural industry will not have RSE workers, they must employ nephs off the couch. Our pacific friends? Tempted by soft loans from the CCP.
  • The Crown Pastoral Lease review effectively puts land into collective ownership for environmental reasons. Has this Government checked into the environmental record of the Soviet Union?
  • Firearm laws have made us less safe. Fundamentally they legislated from an urban perspective, where firearms are not everyday tools but scary things in movies and in the news
  • The country is engaging in an experiment of becoming a ‘partnership state.’ What does that mean? Take a look at the Maunga Authority that governs Auckland. There are 12 seats on the board, six democratically elected and six appointed by Iwi. Half and half is the what the Treaty demands, they say, one person one vote? That’s old-fashioned thinking. The Partnership State is the future of resource management.
  • The Government is bringing back compulsory unionism, where everyone’s paid the same regardless of effort, and just 10 per cent of workers can force it on everyone. To show their sense of humour, the Government is calling these ‘fair pay agreements’

That’s the avalanche of regulation that farmers currently face. There are some common threads in its approach.

  • These regulations are made without proper cost benefit analysis. If you take the freshwater laws, the costs of cleaner water were beyond any rational person would be prepared to pay if the costs and benefits were spelt out to them
  • They are made without proper consultation of the people affected. People often complain of great ambivalence, and even petulance, from the Minister responsible
  • There is a double standard. No election-conscious politician would ever impose the same standards on the 85 per cent who live in cities. You only have to look at the way that councils grant themselves consents to discharge because they haven’t maintained their own infrastructure
  • They are made with the assumption that farmers fundamentally want to destroy the environment. That’s the attitude that saw Mark’s daughter be given such a terrible essay topic.

One last thing, ACT has been on the right side of all those arguments.

This Government doesn’t allow for the simple and obvious fact that farmers depend on the environment for their living. Farmers are the industry in New Zealand whose income next year depends on their conservation next year.

The Opinionators

One question I get a lot is along the lines of ‘where is all this crap coming from?’ People are at a loss to understand why the rate of change is so rapid and so out of kilter with ordinary people’s values. So far away from the freakin’ obvious so much of the time.

Some people ask if there is some shadowy force that is pulling the strings in the background. I don’t think so. Conspiracy theories give the Government too much credit. I still haven’t heard one simple enough for the current Government to actually pull off.

The answer in my view is that a range of groups have worked in the background to set an agenda quite alien to most New Zealanders. I’m talking about the civil service, academia, Astroturf groups such as Generation Zero, Forest and Bird, and Greenpeace.

I call these people opinionators, people whose job is not to do but to opine about what other people should do. The problem is the doers of the world don’t stand a chance against people whose whole job is to influence the political process.

That’s why groups such as the Feds are so important. Those who do need their own opinionators to even up the fight. But we need to redouble our efforts to influence the political discussion that’s out there, because right now, if you look at the direction of policy, those who do are losing out to those who merely opine.

The Way Forward

All of the above is a fairly predictable laundry list of problems faced by farmers up and down New Zealand. There will be some things on that list that some people either don’t think are a problem, or are worth the trouble anyway. There will be other things that worry folk here that aren’t on that list.

The first thing we need to do to move forward is heal the urban rural divide. Some of the ads being run such as ‘the difference is clear’ are fantastic. Fonterra getting groups or urban kids out to the farm is fantastic. I hope I’m doing my bit. If New Zealand’s most urban MP can respect rural New Zealand, what excuse do the rest have?

The deeper question is how we get better law making from the point of view of farmers, and actually, for everyone. This is where I believe we need quasi constitutional reform, that’s what ACT’s democracy policy is about. We need to bring decision making out in the open, and ensure that all voices are heard, not just those whose expertise is being heard in the political process.

Bring Back Democracy

Too many of the bad laws we have occur because there is no proper scrutiny or accountability.

Some people ask me why ACT took such a strong position on firearm law reform.  The simple truth is, it wasn’t about guns, it was about the law. If the Government could go after a group of law-abiding New Zealanders for pure political theatre, who’s next? Farmers, being a minority, are never far behind in the regulatory persecution stakes.

ACT’s Democracy policy involves three quasi-constitutional changes, to be brought in by two referendums, that would significantly improve the level of consultation, transparency in our law making. They would increase the respect for each person and their property, rather than making us fodder for the opinions and their grand schemes.

The three parts are the Regulatory Standards Bill, Four Year Term, and independent Select Committees.

The Regulatory Standards Bill

The first is the Regulatory Standards Bill. It has already been drawn from the biscuit tin and it will be debated in Parliament in July.

The Regulatory Standards Bill requires that politicians and civil servants ask and answer the right questions when making a law or regulation.

  • What is this law for?
  • Does another law already address the problem?
  • Have the relevant people been consulted?
  • Do the benefits of the law outweigh the costs?
  • Who pays the costs, and who gets the benefits?
  • Are private property rights impaired, and if so what is the justification?

The bill has two features to give it extra bite. The first is that if any group or individual feel a law or regulation has been made without adhering to these principles, they can get a declaration in court that the law was made in a way that’s inconsistent with good lawmaking.

That doesn’t cancel the law, but it changes the incentives for politicians and bureaucrats. It says, if you want to make knee-jerk pointless laws without regard for the rights of people they effect, you’re going to rack up a lot of hostile declaration.

The second bite is that it doesn’t just require Parliament to pass it. Like the End of Life Choice Act, it will only become law if the majority of voters vote for it to become law. It is putting the final say in the hands of the people… Not the politicians.

Imagine for moment if every regulation was subject to this level of analysis and challenge.  Legitimate laws designed to ensure the bottom five percent don’t let the side down would go through. Ham fisted abominations would not.

Four-year term

The next initiative, and the subject of my second Members’ Bill, is the four-year term. But it’s a four-year term with a catch, that I’ll come to.

Our democracy is rare in having a three-year term. Of 190 countries with parliaments, 103 have five-year terms, 74 have four-year terms, and just nine have a three-year term.

This does not make for sensible, sober lawmaking. Governments are elected near the end of the year, and barely negotiated coalitions arrangements get their feet under the desk before it’s Christmas.

Then they come back to Parliament after Waitangi, remember New Zealand all but shuts down for the best part of two months every summer.

To properly consult and design a policy, then get it through the cabinet process, then draft the legislation, then get it through parliament, then implement it, to do all of that properly, takes two years.

By this time you’re ready for another election. No politician in the real world is going to risk all their work being undone because they lost by a couple of seats, so they have to compress their program into one term.

That may sound doable. In reality there are events. Financial crises, earthquakes, pandemics, terrorist attacks, and just plain old politicking. In reality almost no other country has a three-year term because it’s nearly impossible to get anything sensible done in that time.

A four-year term is something nearly everyone agrees with, but nobody has the courage to actually campaign for.  It’s time to make it happen. But, we wouldn’t just give politicians an extra year without a catch. The catch is independent select committees.

Independent Select Committees

One reason people oppose a four-year term is that we have so few checks and balances.  And with Labour given a sweeping overall majority, now even those checks on its power have been weakened further still.

Under ACT’s policy, a four-year term is only possible if the Government turns over Select Committees to the opposition.

Let me explain.

There was something different about the Epidemic Response Committee last April. People were captivated, and not just because they were stuck at home under house arrest.

I think it was the fact that, very oddly, it had an opposition majority and an opposition chair.

The Government was wielding extraordinary powers, and the Committee was not supposed to consider any legislation, so the Government was prepared to consider an opposition majority committee in return for Parliament not sitting.

These odd circumstances meant a committee where:

  • Opposition MPs got to ask hard questions of what the Government was up to
  • The witnesses were often people the Government would rather not have had called
  • The majority of the time was used for scrutiny

People say Parliament as it should be, run by people who are not conflicted as representatives of the Crown.

That is far different from the fiasco we saw on the Health Committee earlier this month. Because that committee is dominated by a Labour majority, with a Labour chair, we saw the Minister, who was supposed to be held accountable, getting fawned over and peppered with patsy questions by junior members of his own party.  Great coverage for the Minister, I’m sure… but a poor show of accountability.  New Zealand deserves better.

Now, imagine these select committees have real legislation to deal with. They can actually change it. The Government can still change it back in the Committee of the Whole House Stage –they did win the election—but there’s going to be a lot more debate

  • Government backbenchers will have to defend their Government’s policy, massively increasing their leverage within Caucus
  • Select Committee submitters will know that the Committee can actually change the legislation
  • Committee of the Whole House stage of law making will be much more intensive, as Ministers often argue to change legislation back to their original position.

Now, I recognise that talking about parliamentary procedure is not a great way of driving voters into ecstasy… So let me put it this way.

Independent Select Committees would amount to a voice of the people asking the tough questions of Government laws. They would be a dozen or so mini parliaments where dissenting voices would dominate.

They would really make ministers and civil servants justify every part of their law, transparently and openly for all to see.  Where a policy’s a winner, its support would be justified.  If it was divisive or damaging… Then that would be exposed for all to see.

Under ACT’s four-year term with a catch, the three-year term would actually remain the default. It would offer an incoming Government the possibility of going four years, if it turned control of select committees over to the opposition.

Like the Regulatory Standards Bill, the Four-year term with a catch would need approval by referendum.

Conclusion

ACT’s democracy policy brings New Zealanders back into the conversation about the future of our country.

With these rules, the Government of the day would not be able to run roughshod over the rights on New Zealanders with a hail of knee-jerk regulations lost in a slew of wedding announcements.

We would rebuild and retool our democracy to give ordinary people a greater say in the future of the country they’re paying for. 

Farmers a fundamentally a minority that’s been hard done by in our law making process. Having watched the process up close for nearly seven years, inside and outside Government, I am determined to improve it.

ACT  has been working on this for fifteen years since the Regulatory Responsibility Bill was first floated in 2006. Resetting and retooling our democracy will take many more years, but it is worth it. I hope you will get in behind the cause.

Thank you.