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Brash Speech - DoC threatens high country farming

Don Brash Speech - DoC threatens high country farming
Address to the Federated Farmers High Country Annual Conference, Molesworth Station

Not so long ago, a Labour Party Cabinet Minister put out a press release with the headline: Nats lost in the High Country.

Well, I can’t think of a better place to be lost. Maybe, he should try it sometime.

I could get lost in the High Country - but we’re not lost on the High Country.

Unlike him, we’ve been listening to the concerns of High Country farmers - and we want to do something about them.

I will come back to some of the issues unique to the High Country, but I want first to say a few words about farming in general.

The world prices for our agricultural exports have been very strong for several years now - venison excluded. But as you know the strong Kiwi dollar has been cutting deeply into the returns that New Zealand producers get for their output.

From my experience in central banking, I know, perhaps better than most, that there is not too much that can be done about short-term pressures from the currency. But there is plenty that can be done about the domestic cost pressures that farming businesses face, and the range of government activities that reduce the growth prospects of this country.

You just have to look at the extraordinary indiscipline in public spending, much of it done without the slightest oversight from anybody with an ounce of commonsense and without the slightest accountability for the financial disasters that have resulted - just think of the hundreds of millions wasted in low quality tertiary education.

The flip side of that has been an increasing tax burden, not just from the lift in the top tax rate, but from the steady rise in the proportion of taxpayers affected by it.

Then there is the restoration of the ACC monopoly, the re-regulation of the labour market, the slowdown in the pace of tariff reductions, the growth in state ownership of businesses, increasing regulation of banking, telecommunications and electricity, takeover regulation, more expansive local government legislation, ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, more central control of health and education and more lenient welfare rules.

In addition, we have major problems in roading and water management, while the Resource Management Act needs a major overhaul.

In all these areas, this Government is either taking New Zealand in the wrong direction or not responding to emerging problems. As we have found in the past, the cumulative impact of numerous small mistakes tends to add up to a slower growth rate than we could have. It is why New Zealand incomes have continued to fall behind, and it is the main reason why Kiwis are continuing to abandon this country.

We must turn that around, and we can.

But we won’t do it by ignoring the damage current policy is doing to all businesses, including farming.

Is it any wonder that five Federated Farmers provinces have passed formal votes of no confidence in Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton, triggered of course by justifiable anger at the Government’s land access strategy?

This is unprecedented.

Let me turn now to some specific High Country farming issues.

High Country farmers have been a crucial part of the farming sector, which has been the backbone of this country for more than a hundred and fifty years.

The pioneer’s work - their children’s work - your work turned it into the tremendous resource it is today.

There’s no better place than Molesworth Station to remind us how hard it was - how hard it still is.

Originally, this was four properties that had to be abandoned by the first farming families. Those properties were taken over and amalgamated by Lands and Survey, converted from sheep to cattle.

Now Molesworth is at a turning point in its history.

You’re right to be concerned about what’s happening. We should all be concerned.

Who’s going to look after the High Country from now on?

Who’s going to look after it best?

The Department of Conservation? Or farmers who know this country so well?

This is the essence of the debate: who should own, who should control, and who should care for our High Country?

These are the critical questions we’ve got to ask.

And I think we know the answer.

Just look at what DoC’s supposed to do.

• Expand biodiversity effort;

• Minimise biosecurity risks;

• Increase emphasis on historic and cultural values;

• Promote appropriate recreation and increased public enjoyment of protected places;

• Engage the community in conservation;

• Promote effective partnerships with Tangata Whenua.

That’s Doc’s mission in life.

No mention of the word “farming” anywhere.

Put that aside for a moment.

How effective is DoC at what it’s supposed to do? After all, it controls 41% of the South Island already. Their last annual report said that of the 2,400 New Zealand indigenous species now listed as threatened, 25% face a very high risk of extinction in the wild.

Is that what minimizing biosecurity risk and increasing biodiversity means?

Now what about another of its core objectives, promoting “appropriate recreation and increased public enjoyment of protected places”?

The very first action that DoC took after they bought Birchwood Station was to padlock a gate closing a road that the public had used, with the farmer’s permission, for generations.

I don’t know whose enjoyment was increased by putting a padlock on that gate.

The Labour Government paid $10 million buying out the leaseholder on Birchwood to turn the land into the centre-piece of a conservation park.

That’s $1200 a stock unit when stock and station agents say the market rate was running at around $500 a stock unit.

Nice for the vendor - but not so nice for farmers who want to renew their leases, stay on the High Country, and keep farming.

Apply the kind of artificial valuation placed on Birchwood across the High Country and you can see what’s going to happen to leasing costs in future.

And what about the taxpayer, you and me, who funded this huge purchase?

The Government has pulled together millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to push the process along.

It has hijacked the process of land tenure review that a National Government started.

We wanted to see a tenure review that would produce environmental, economic and social sustainability in the high country - a balanced mix of objectives.

But the Labour Government has changed the rules.

Tenure review was a good process. In exchange for giving up the scenic and uneconomic parts of their land for a conservation estate, pastoral leaseholders would get freehold title to the rest of their property.

But Labour’s real and secret objective - plain and simple - is to take land out of farming and put it into parks and reserves.

A tenure review that was intended to see about 60 percent of the High Country land remain in profitable agriculture has been re-designed, with some commentators now saying at least 60 percent of the High Country will be converted into parks and reserves managed by the Department of Conservation.

By creating more expensive parks and reserves, this Government will also create more expensive leases for farmers - and, ultimately, even less farming in the high country.

Through valuations like the one the Government placed on Birchwood, it is artificially creating the kind of land price pressures that will force pastoral leaseholders to leave the land when their returns won’t support their new leasing costs.

If all pastoral leaseholders succumb to the pressure and opt for this kind of tenure review, a considerable amount of the stock currently farmed on the South Island High Country will disappear.

Up to 600,000 stock units worth about $30 million a year could vanish from our books - this is clearly not good for any economy so dependent on agriculture.

On top of that, we all get a new bill of unknown size for the management of a vastly expanded area of Crown parks and reserves.

And local authorities lose any rates that were paid on that land while it was used for farming.

The Clark-Cullen-Carter Government - and I hasten to say that we are talking about Chris Carter here, not about my distinguished colleague, the National Party’s Agriculture spokesman, David Carter! - is putting on the pressure to make it happen.

We know that their officials are promoting tenure review success stories to encourage leaseholders to participate in the process.

We know they have a plan ready in case its objectives are jeopardised by non-participation and withdrawal from the tenure review.

They have measures ready to initiate land acquisition for conservation purposes and for introducing market rentals, and for more active management of significant inherent values by the landlord.

They’ve been ready since they were noted in a Cabinet Minute at the end of 2003.

This is a deliberate, planned Government land grab.

Where’s the justification for it?

Where’s the case that says DoC will look after the land better than the private farmers who manage it today?

Where is the research report into the impact on the land of converting it from farming into parks and reserves managed by DoC?

Where’s the analysis that says how much this change is going to cost taxpayers on an on-going basis?

I haven’t seen them - because they haven’t been done.

The Government and DoC are shooting blind - taking a major risk.

They haven’t assembled the facts - because the facts won’t allow them to work out their prejudice.

They see pastoral leaseholders as a “squatocracy” leeching a rich living off the rest of the country.

Intuitively, they don’t like private occupation of High Country land - even if it’s purchased at a fair price.

They don’t just want public ownership of the land - they want it under public service management; that is state control.

Why?

Because they don’t know you - and they don’t trust you.

They don’t trust you to keep on doing all the things you do to protect the land and provide access to it for the public - without reward.

We don’t share their prejudice.

We know that pastoral farming can, and should, be compatible with achieving conservation and public access goals.

We know that if grazing is reduced, weeds are not controlled, and public access is not managed in the High Country through the dry summer months. And if someone isn’t around to keep watch over it during the cold winter, there will be huge damage.

Pastoral leaseholders do all these things today anyway.

We’ll all be paying for it if DoC takes on the task.

So, what is National going to do?

First, we’re here today - to show that we believe your concerns are real.

This is a major issue, and more people should be listening to what you have to say.

Second, we’ll commit to putting whatever pressure we can on the Government to change bad policy and on DoC to change bad behaviour.

In Government, we will carry out a major review of DoC’s functions, starting with an independent audit of its current performance. We know that DoC’s tentacles are everywhere, to the frustration of farmers throughout New Zealand.

The objects of the review will be to:

• Confirm DoC’s focus on its core task of protecting New Zealand’s unique flora and endangered species.

• And narrow DoC’s advocacy responsibility to areas of biosecurity and biodiversity where it has specific expertise.

Ultimately, DoC needs a new mandate and mission statement.

People who think that the only way to ensure conservation values is to have the Government own land are lining the taxpayer up for millions in additional costs.

I believe that conservation values are shared by the majority of New Zealanders, including farmers. The Government doesn't need to own everything. It needs to put in place a framework which will enable public spirited people to do the right thing.

We will change the terms of the South Island High Country tenure review so that they no longer concentrate on the objective of Crown ownership and DoC control.

Tenure review must strike a sound balance between the objectives of environmental, economic, and social outcomes.

Negotiations must be conducted on the basis of a fair valuation process, and conducted in good faith.

Good faith is what’s missing in the current review - with the Labour Government threatening to change the conditions of pastoral leases if it doesn’t achieve its High Country objectives under current policies.

The terms of the tenure review - terms like Significant Inherent Values - need to be more clearly defined and understood. We’ll attend to that.

The full range of measures for the protection of Significant Inherent Values - including the wider use of farm plans and covenants - provided in our 1998 Crown Pastoral Land Act must be available for use.

I particularly applaud the use of QE II covenants - outcomes achieved by cooperation rather than compulsion.

Finally, tenure review must be a voluntary process - with leaseholders able to withdraw at any time before an agreement is signed.

We do not want to see the South Island High Country land tenure review end up producing new division and grievances. The country has enough of both already.

When I look around Molesworth Station today, I recall the words of John Aspinall, a son of the South Island High Country whose family has leased and farmed Mt Aspiring Station, near Wanaka, since 1920.

“In the 19th century, this land was regarded as unwanted wasteland. It was the last area to be settled. It was farmed under short-term leases with no security of reissue, little or no compensation for improvements, and no incentive to invest in land management.”

The introduction of a sensible long-term leasehold system changed all that.

Today, this land is important to all New Zealanders. It’s something that defines the unique character of our country.

It must be retained for the enjoyment of future generations.

It does not need to be exclusively in Crown ownership and under public service management for that to be achieved. In fact quite the opposite.

We take pleasure in our diversity in every other aspect of New Zealand life. We should be doing the same thing in the High Country.

Thank you for your invitation to join you here at Molesworth today.


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