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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Katie Milne

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Katie Milne

The regions will be big winners under the new government, but farmers have also felt under fire recently, with threats of a water tax and agriculture being brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Dairy farmers in particular have got a bit of a bad rep these days, and I asked Federated Farmers president Katie Milne if they have some work to do to put that right.

Katie Milne: Absolutely. There have been issues, and there are some places that do have hotspots and so on that are being addressed, and the farmers are engaging with that, doing lots of catchment-by-catchment mitigations, whether it's planting... And we're learning more about farming systems and changing those as we go. We're attacking it from a lot of different angles. But one of the things also about it is that it's more of a realisation time too in that it's taken 150 years to get here — to where we are — and things have changed. Yes, we have grown our businesses and all those things. We were sheep farming, mainly, in New Zealand in the '50s. That's moved through to beef farming, and now more recently, it's moved through to dairy. So it has been a learning curve, and there have been issues, but they are well on the way to being dealt with. And I think that's the thing that's really stood out to farmers this time round that it's come up again is that there's a lot being done that people obviously aren't aware of already.

Lisa Owen: Well, it looks like under this new government that you won't have to pay a water tax. But some people would argue part of the mitigation is making farmers pay for water. Why shouldn't you pay for water?

Well, the other side to that was that they were going to use that to clean up the waterways. And, actually, irrigation in those areas, if you look through, hasn't actually... Irrigation and effluent and poor water quality don't go hand in hand, necessarily, at all. Those waterways in that area are actually not, as it's been reported, anywhere near the levels that some people have said. It's not as big an issue as it has been made out to be. So also what irrigation does is it enables you to grow something. And everyone has assumed that if you're going to carry on with more irrigation anywhere, it's going to be about cows. And that's a real problem for farmers in that with the disruption that we're looking at in the near future, where they're talking about plant proteins and so on, we actually have to be able to grow something, and irrigation will enable that. And it doesn't mean that it's going to be more cows.

While you might not face a water tax per se, in terms of the irrigation schemes, the National government has put in about 400 million from asset sales — 90 million in the last Budget. Why shouldn't Labour stop spending money on irrigation systems like that, and what if they do? What if this government does?

It's going to be really sad, actually, if they do, and I know they're talking about that pretty heavily — looking at unbundling it, unwinding it. But it sets you up for infrastructure and ability to do things in the future. And, as I said before, with the disruption that agriculture is facing in general, where people are saying, 'Look, we've found some ways to use other protein sources — plant protein and so on — and you won't know the difference; it'll taste like meat,' if we don't set up to be able to grow that — and there's other areas that we could irrigate, as we've seen — Ruataniwha and so on — we will be behind the eight ball. And things are going to change in agriculture going forward, and I say to people, 'I don't know what I'll be growing in five or 10 years. I may have less cows.' So the rest of the world will pick it up and will be able to be ahead of the game on us on that one. And we won't be able to fit in and continue to actually have an export—
So you're saying you won't be able to compete on the world stage in terms of exporting without that irrigation and without subsidised irrigation.
Well, it's an infrastructure thing. It is about actually enabling New Zealand to have options, optionality going forward.
Isn't that corporate welfare, though? Government paying for an irrigation system that benefits private businesses, which farmers are — private businesses.
It's setting up options for whatever type of business the nation wants to have later. Look, roads and so on like that, they are paid for by the government, and all private businesses and so on benefit from that, as well as the general public. So I think it's something that could be talked out, but it's definitely not just for private benefit. It enables communities to grow and thrive and provide jobs and so on through having businesses there that function well.
From a different angle, though, this is also related to preserving the environment and climate change. And the other thing that farmers do not pay for at the moment is animal emissions. So why do you think that you should get a free pass on that?
Well, no one in the world charges for animal emissions. That's the first part.
Doesn't mean that we can't.
Yeah, no, that's right. But I guess the thing is that we're working on mitigations there. There's the Biological Emissions Research Group; there's the Greenhouse Gas Consortium. We're spending a lot of money in that area to find what we can do that will help to mitigate that. And we've always said, 'Keep us out unless there's mitigations.'
But Federated Farmers has acknowledged that that is about a decade away — so injections for cows and things like that. That's a decade away. People would argue that's too far into the distance, so why should you get a free pass on it now?
Well, again, we're not on a level playing field in our international— with other competitors anyway when we export. No one else is doing it. So if you add that impediment in the meantime... We want it, because the thing is it'll make us more efficient too.
So, I want to move on to politics. The only party that has committed to not putting a charge on emissions for farmers is National and not putting a charge on water for farmers is National. So is National still the party of farmers?
Well, actually, New Zealand First is not big on the emissions trading for farmers either — the biological part — because they know, too, until the mitigation's there, it's not—
Yeah, but they'd set up a climate commission and do some other things.
Yeah, which— But, still, they have pretty fundamental things that they realise that, yeah, until there's something there, it's not going to achieve what you actually want.
So is New Zealand First the party for farmers now? Or do you still think National is the predominant party for farmers?
Well, I hope that all parties would be the parties for farmers, because we're a part of the economy that is crucial. 80% of New Zealanders still think that agriculture has a place to play in our future. And so we need that to be supported through being able to learn these new ways, get these mitigations in, support the science that'll help us be better and do things in a new way, because it is a key part to our economy.
So, election figures show that, in fact, the South Island in rural areas swung more to Labour than the northern and urban areas. So why do you think that there was that bit of a shift?
I do think that that was the political football that farming became, and the rivers — you know, everyone talking about the degradation and so on — people firmly believing that, basically, they're all buggered. And that's not true. We have areas where there has been decline. And in the towns as well, we do have issues, and we know that, and we're all trying to work towards making that better and doing our part where we can. And so I think it's things like that that are fundamentals for people. If they haven't gone out an experienced themselves and had a look and talked to people on what is actually happening and checked some of the websites for validity, because there's some out there that have got skull and crossbones on every river in Canterbury, which is—
So you think the swing in vote was due to misinformation about quality of water?
Well, no. Part... And a whole lot of policies where, you know, people cling on to parts of it and the full story is not necessarily fully understood. Yeah, so, look, that's just my opinion of what the swing was about, and I think that that was more of an urban-rural disconnect a little bit.
Okay. Well, we're running out of time. Just before we go, on the show recently, we've been talking about the gender pay gap. Is there a gender pay gap in farming? How does women's pay stack up with men's in the farming industry?
As far as I'm aware, there's not, because if you come in and you apply for a job, your skill set is your skill set, and we just pay what the going rate is. So, actually, it's a good question. I'm not 100% sure, but my experience is that whoever comes through my door, they get the hourly rate they get, and it doesn't matter what sex they are.
And speaking of pay, is there any justification where anyone should get 8 million bucks in the pay packet?
I don't supply Fonterra, so I'm glad I don't have to answer that one. Hey, look, but as people have said, look, it's right out there, and it seems pretty ostentatious, but if he's producing the results under those parameters that those directors set up as KPIs for him, then he's earnt it.
All right. Hey, thanks for joining us this morning. Much appreciated.
You're welcome.

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