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Extremists Hijacked South Is. High Country Policy

South Island High Country Committee Chair, Donald Aubrey
National Council Speech: State of Play
Te Papa Tongarewa , Wellington,
11.15am, November 20, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have been asked to provide you with an update of the reforms and tenure situation in the South Island’s High Country. Let me begin by saying that the relationship pastoral lessees presently have with the Crown is the worst in living memory. So how has this come about?

Clearly these lands are of significant importance to all New Zealanders and even prior to the 1948 Land Act steps for its care were being considered. I represent many families that have committed their lives as stewards of this land. As a consequence the South Island’s tussock grasslands are in better condition than ever before, due in no small part to the knowledge and management provided by High Country farmers.

Despite the many Department of Conservation reports that rave about the beauty and inherent values present as a result of landowner stewardship, a small extreme fraction of recreational and environmental interests have hijacked policy decision making for such places.

They say it must be saved, that the very presence of significant inherent values is a miracle and nothing to do with 150 years of pastoral management. Seemingly by chance the jewel of the nation is largely free of rabbits, gorse and broom, and if it was not for farming it would be perfect.

So instead of respecting and supporting the farming families involved, government has embarked on an oppressive and manipulative course. It continues to ignore its own advice provided in a report LINZ commissioned to assess land valuation practices and establish fair and equitable rents for permanently held pastoral leases. Government has manipulated its share of the reward as a result of successful farmer stewardship under the 1948 Land Act. Amenity values by decree meaning that the government owns the view and farmers must pay for the privilege of having eyesight.

By doing this many properties are faced with annual rentals of $70,000- $100,000, some even higher, generally they exceed the net incomes of the affected families. Of the 65 recent notifications for rent renewal it is therefore little surprise that all 65 have formally objected to the land valuation tribunal with a hearing expected to commence early next year.

Never mind the generations of landcare provided by these families! Whack them with rentals they cannot possibly afford and then wait for them to beg. And beg they can. Last week the Minister for Land Information announced that if he hears begging in the form of pest and weed control being offered, or secure public access or even some form of cultural preservation then he will consider it. He may even decide to grant you an affordable rental.

You see little regard is to be given for the that fact that generations of these affected farmers have sometimes worked both day and night on pest control, weed control, and in facilitating access to their land for the benefit of the general public.

Policy capture by a radical few has put the future of High Country Farming at serious risk. In place of support comes suppression. The government has taken steps to devalue the asset held by pastoral leases, in the misguided belief that it is saving the South Island High Country from destruction. “High Country land protected forever” was the heading of a Ministerial press release as it announced the removal of livestock and the arrival of hundreds of white vehicles with one person each in them bearing the Department of Conservation logo. This daily migration arrives at 10:30am and departs at 2:30pm and represents the new ecologically sustainable way to save the High Country.

Property rights are oppressed. The Prime Minister publicly announced it is “unquestionably public land” when referring to pastoral leases that have been perpetually (that means forever) assigned to the holder. It is a deliberate move to diminish the standing of these titles in an attempt to impose the agenda of a few.

Of course High Country farming families care about lakes and their environment. But there was never going to be widespread, inappropriate lakeside development as claimed. Headlines proclaiming that the government has saved Southern Lakes from change has come at the expense of the stewards that have cared for those same areas for generations. Unless greater respect is shown for the role resident land managers provide then postcard lake vistas will need to be propped up at every turn by taxpayer funds confronted with a changing landscape.

As far back as the “Royal Commissions” of 1905 and 1911, there was recognition of the importance of soil and water management. Even today soil and water are the foundations of all farming in New Zealand. Farming cannot successfully exist without them.

The 1948 Land Act recognised that fact and in return for their protection farmers received security of tenure. They were granted pastoral leases in perpetuity. So instead of a non-renewable title these leases made it worthwhile for High Country farmers to invest in and care for their land, and although the soil remains in the Crown’s ownership, nothing else does. It is the manipulation of those ownership rights by the Crown that is causing so much angst in the High Country today.

What effectively occurred was the assignment of these properties to private ownership. It has been a successful move and if the government does not want to acknowledge the partnership aspect of perpetual leases then that is its call. However, the success of ensuring private interests hold secure title is clearly illustrated by the condition of the South Island High Country today. By disrupting land owners in the way that is being experienced, a structure that has delivered worthwhile environmental gains is now in jeopardy. These land owners must receive the greater recognition and respect in the role they play in caring for the High Country.

Insisting that High Country families must beg for relief in order to survive is hardly a positive way forward. Coincidentally the first ever South Island High Country pastoral relationship meeting called for by LINZ in Christchurch today, was postponed at the very last moment to February. The government needs to reflect on the fact that at the same time meetings about our relationship are planned we will be in court talking about Lake Wanaka’s Minaret station in an attempt to be able to afford our rentals. After 150 years of successful pastoralism together with landcare, it is not appropriate that High Country farming families must now beg to stay. The Act states that we must be treated fairly and equitably. New Zealand is a beautiful country. South Island High Country farmers want to keep it that way. We will fight to stay.

ENDS

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