Free enterprise cooks up a tasty stew

JON MORGAN
Last updated 09:11 30/06/2011

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Farming

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Powerful people are manipulating us for their own ends, Don Nicolson believes. And the only way to defeat them is to allow free enterprise to have free rein.

The retiring president of Federated Farmers is convinced New Zealand is a victim of international job-creation schemes.

"There are senior people who absolutely know what they're doing," he says. "They've created industries by building complexity into everything. Every time they write something down – when it goes from the head to the paper – that's when we're lost."

However, we can be saved if free enterprise is given more encouragement. "It's like in the old days, when your mother made stew and you skimmed the surface off to get to the good bits underneath. I trust the good bits to come through."

The Invercargill farmer's time with the lobby group might be ending, but he admits to a hankering to stay in the corridors of power.

He describes his politics as "where the National Party used to be" and says that while he hasn't yet received offers from political parties, he is open to an approach.

His aim as president of the 27,000-member federation has been to open people's eyes to the dangers of an over-complicated bureaucracy.

An example on an international scale is the emissions trading scheme, he says. He has led Federated Farmers' fight against the scheme, gaining a small victory when the National Government delayed agriculture's entry and reduced the scheme's impact on farmers, but losing the battle to have it removed altogether.

Asked if he thinks the ETS is a con someone came up with, he replies: "I do think it is exactly like that."

It is part of a United Nations effort to move resources from developed to developing countries to grow them out of the poverty trap, he says. "It is about creating jobs to prevent anarchy."

So, a group of shadowy powerful people decided to make the ETS for job-creation? "Yes, but I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I don't know where the round table was that devised this scheme, but I think the genesis was in a green movement somewhere.

"I have to say the green movement has done a great job of getting into the hearts and minds of the international population. They have infiltrated everywhere.

"Sadly, those of us who are at the base of a production system just got on and did our job, not understanding the dynamic that was filtering through the Western World."

He came into the presidency three years ago wanting to open people's eyes to this, but met resistance within and outside the federation. "So many people try to deviate you from your core principles that I have to check myself at times to see if I have been pulled off line."

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While he is disappointed at not having more success, his confidence has grown.

"I'm heartened that people seem to respect what I say." He singles out deposed ACT leader Rodney Hide as a kindred spirit.

He counts the changes to the ETS as one of the federation's big wins of his term. Another was to persuade banks to lower floating rates for rural customers, a move worth between a quarter and half a billion dollars, he says.

Others have been to gain an extra $250 million in funding for rural broadband and the likely peaceful solution to the argument over high-voltage power lines crossing farmland.

He gives credit to chief executive Conor English and strategic communications manager David Broome, adding that the advantages of having good communications have been a revelation. It has been a key reason why membership has risen to cover an estimated 60 per cent to 70 per cent of all farmers.

His biggest regret has been a failure to get local body rates funding reform. "It would stop the unfair treatment of a ratepaying minority – farmers. Hopefully, it will still happen."

HE PREDICTS the federation's next big fight will be over proposals to protect regenerating scrubland on farms. "We have the public wanting to take authority over our lands without full compensation. That's got to stop."

Compensation must be paid, he says, and it should be backdated to include land taken in past decades. "We have land locked up in public parks and in covenanted land, but we have society saying we should give more. If they want more they're going to have to pay for it. It's a fundamental tenet of Western law."

If a political career is not to be, he will happily go back to the farm. At 54, he is no longer prepared to throw himself into the physical work of sheep handling, and has reduced his flock from 3700 ewes to 400 and turned more to dairying support.

He feels the previous generation let his generation down by distorting markets with subsidies – what he calls privilege.

"The lesson I learnt in 1985, when the impediments of privilege were removed, is that the evolution of the best ideas will only happen with free enterprise. I learned that society is damaged by the distortions created by government policy."

But before then he was a beneficiary of subsidies, earning the money to buy his farm by milling timber for farmers flush with funds from the Livestock Incentive Scheme and supplementary minimum prices.

When these were removed he says he went from being wealthy to technically insolvent in three to four years. He and wife Gail struggled to survive.

"We didn't buy the consumer goods everyone in the cities were getting. We had two girls, but 10 years apart because we couldn't afford it. People look at you sideways when you say that."

Today, people say how hard it is for a young person to go farming, but it's always been hard, he says. "You've got to be resilient, and you've got to be able to take adversity on the chin and move on."

He worries that farmers are losing their individuality with a trend to making them conform to a set of ideals. He talks about "mind-managed clones" and the rise of corporate farms – "machines that spit out a product". "That's not what our forefathers fought for."

This brings him to the National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme, strenuously opposed by Federated Farmers and now delayed till next year.

The idea was sound, based on exporting safe, trusted food, but the proof that it was not needed was in the way it was promoted to farmers, as a way to improve their on-farm production, he says.

"Those people who negotiate our market access saw it as a point of difference, but they didn't consult the farmers who have to wear the cost. I asked where in the world was traceability demanded as a condition of market entry for our produce, and the answer was nowhere."

Overshadowing the federation for years to come will be the fight against the ETS. "We've got to get the biologicals out of the scheme," he says, referring to the inclusion of animal methane and nitrous oxide emissions. "New Zealand is in an international club of one on this. We don't need it, it's nonsense."

He is not convinced climate change is man-made. "Climate variation has always occurred and always will. The science is not conclusive, but I do know, and this is key to me, it is important to use the world's resources wisely and responsibly."

It is also important to build resilience to climate variation into the community. "But it shouldn't be predicated on fear factors. And it is. A lot of people have had this fear of tomorrow put into their head."

The fear of war and nuclear disasters has not come from people pursuing free enterprise, he says. "They're from man's religious or political belief, or arrant power belief."

The people who want to hold back population growth fear the future. "What if we froze the world population at the 1.6 billion it was in 1900? In Wellington 110 years later, we'd still have little wooden shacks on Oriental Pde and we wouldn't be as healthy.

"We are just light years ahead and what bugs me is the people who are scared about this stuff don't understand that science has allowed an evolution of ideas, all driven by population growth.

"The only impediments to solving the world's problems are the people who say we can't. We've turned from being a can-do society, which was when I was a kid and you had to be resourceful and self-determined, to being a can't-do society.

"I trust in the evolution of good commonsense ideas. And you get them from open and free, and responsible, markets."

- BusinessDay

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