Carter laments stubborn attitudes

DAVID CARTER: Named as the Government's nominee to become Speaker when Lockwood Smith leaves.
DAVID CARTER: Named as the Government's nominee to become Speaker when Lockwood Smith leaves.

Outgoing Minister for Primary Industries David Carter reels off a long list of what he calls "a good number" of achievements during his four years in office, but at the end of it he has to admit to a few lows as well.

The intransigent wool and meat industries have both defeated him, as they have ministers before him.

It obviously frustrates him. He puts it down to warring personalities in leading roles and the farmers' apathy that lets this continue.

He sighs. "I was surprised to see those two co-ops [meat companies Silver Fern Farms and Alliance Group] collectively announce losses of around $100 million and the farmer owners just being so accepting of that. Some heads should have rolled."

New Zealand lamb is seen around the world, often the highest-priced item at upmarket restaurants, yet the industry struggled to market it, he says.

"Something's not being done correctly."

The companies should follow the recommendations of the 2011 strategy and collaborate more within New Zealand, he says.

Should the co-ops merge?

"I personally think it should be looked at strongly," he says.

But the argument against it he hears from the companies' leaders is that their market share would be chipped away by their competitors.

Carter's answer to that is to make a strong effort to sign up by the farmer suppliers to "loyally deliver".

"That's where this industry goes wrong," he says. "There's no loyalty of supply. So farmers, to some extent, when they play the markets on a Sunday evening, are their own worst enemies."

Asked if there is anything the Government can do, he says no.

"The strategy recommended far more collaboration. It cannot be forced on them."

And for the companies to move, it will take a push from their farmer shareholders.

"Farmers are known to be fairly apathetic, but they substantially own this industry. If the co- ops were prepared to have constructive talks, backed by an assurance of loyalty from their suppliers, it could be a very interesting development."

However, after the lack of reaction to a disastrous season, followed by a $50-a-lamb drop in farmgate lamb prices, he can't see it happening.

Wool was another disappointment for him.

He appointed a wool "tsar", former Treasury secretary Murray Horn, to try to heal deep divisions within the industry, but four years on nothing has changed and wool prices have moved only slightly upwards.

"It hasn't been a complete success," he says.

Farmers made a "significant mistake" when they voted not to continue with a wool levy. "I can understand why they did it. They were completely disgruntled with the performance of the Wool Board 10 years earlier."

Wool industry collaboration is unlikely, he says. "It's a personality thing at the end of the day, in both meat and wool. There are very strong personalities in both industries."

However, it could be done. The dairy industry's example gave some hope.

"They had strong personalities and overcame that. Then there was a role for the Government in the restructuring legislation.

"But the farmers had to take that mammoth step. I should imagine if the meat industry was prepared to take that giant step and work together, a government would be only too happy to support them."

Another issue he is leaving behind unresolved is how to deal with dairying's effect on the environment. Regional councils are following government guidelines in setting rules, but he believes at least one council, Manawatu- Whanganui, has gone too far.

An Environment Court ruling on the One Plan is "a step too far and unworkable", he says.

"For it to work would require a drastic drop in production on many farms. The economic impact would be so great that it would lower the standard of living of people in that area."

A High Court appeal will be heard shortly and he would not be drawn on what might happen if the plan was upheld. "I'm not prepared to comment on what a government might do in the future, because I'm not going to be sitting around the Cabinet table."

Before he moves from the Beehive to the Speaker's spacious offices, he lists his achievements.

Strong recognition of the importance of the primary sector around the Cabinet table and from caucus. Most New Zealanders are now more appreciative of the primary industries' importance to the economy, he says.

The importance of water, with $400m available for regional irrigation and storage schemes.

Biosecurity at airports is "substantially" better, with an improved relationship between Customs and Ministry for Primary Industries staff. The horticulture industry biosecurity relationship is also improved after a clearing of the air last year.

Animal welfare was one of his early concerns, with "a bit of a set-to" with Federated Farmers in Southland. Farmers are now more aware of welfare issues, are prepared to report on their neighbours and are also ready to help neighbours cope.

Creation of the new ministry from the Food Safety Authority and the Fisheries and Agriculture and Forestry ministries. The new organisation is far more focused on working with the primary sector than it was, he says.

Dairy-industry reforms were "useful". Trading Among Farmers had been a successful move, despite "misguided" criticism. "Even the critics would have to agree it has been successful." Tied into that were changes to the Raw Milk Regulations that gave more transparency to milk prices.

The $650m investment in agricultural research through Primary Growth Partnerships, half of it coming from the Government. "There was an absolute gap in primary-sector investment going back over several governments and that has largely been addressed."

The National Animal Identification and Tracing Scheme (Nait). This was opposed by Federated Farmers, but is now going "reasonably well".

Foreign charter vessels in the fishing industry. "We had evidence of mistreatment of foreign crews and, once I saw that being a danger to New Zealand's international reputation and it was critical, we acted."

The Dominion Post