The Role of Government

Coat of Arms

2014 is election year in New Zealand. These events come around too often for my liking here anyway – every three years. The first year is wasted deciding who is going to govern with whom as under the MMP system it is highly unlikely that one party is able to govern alone. Understanding where the dirt the prospective coalition partners’ ‘sensitive’ areas also takes time. In the second year  election policies get rammed guided through Parliament and the third year is spent scheming planning re-election for another term. Surely there must be a better system.

This year’s campaign got kicked off early. Prime Minister John Key and his campaign manager Barack Obama met on a golf course in Hawaii, as one does, to set the scene. Go figure. Because the electoral system sucks is not as balanced as it ought to be given the diversity of the nation,we end up in a real mess every thirty years or so. The last major occurrence came after the 1984 election which saw Rob Muldoon evicted defeated and David Lange elected. Our foreign exchange reserves were so low that the country just about went bankrupt.  And then the restructuring started… The acronym SMP got replaced with a new one; SOE.  The civil service was slimmed down, Roger Douglas was in full flight changing the tax regime and Fay Richwhite made enough dough earned sufficiently from the sale of NZ Rail to the State Railway of Wisconsin, to afford comfortable retirement in Switzerland and on Great Mercury Island.

Let’s stick with SMP.  Have you looked it up yet?  Yes, there is that dirty word….subsidies…and successive New Zealand governments have done their darndest to ensure that our producers were lily white at all times since the mid eighties to ensure we were competing on a ‘user pays’ basis on world markets. Pity that many of our trading partners did not follow suit straight away…and in some cases not for thirty years….

The New Zealand Herald recently ran an article entitled “Reform in wind for farmers”. The topic of discussion was the farm subsidy system Japanese micro farmers have enjoyed until now. I hasten to add that the NZ Herald did, of course, not research and write that article itself – the story had been run by Bloomberg in mid December. It is certainly an interesting read. How about this for starters?

“Takashi Nakajima earns $120,000 a year growing lettuces, employs Chinese labourers to harvest them and has four months off in winter to indulge his passion for speed skating. He’s the result of a protected farming system that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is about to dismantle.”

Naturally, Nakajima is fuming less than impressed.

“I don’t trust the Government at all. They want to streamline Japan’s farming business. Small farmers won’t be able to survive and the community will die.”

When the New Zealand Government removed SMP payments in the mid eighties, they killed off discontinued the MAF Advisory Service for good measure. This service was staffed by very skilled horticulturists and applied scientists who formed the link between the universities and research institutes and growers, to ensure that new advances in science found their practical application. The service was free. Ever since then, ‘user pays’ rules.  How many small farmers do we have left?  We are down to about 120 potato growers, for example, compared to several hundred a decade ago. Not sure about lettuce growers. And our rural communities? Those who have survived sure do not have an easy time.

The article is one of the better ones I have read, as it not only looks at the situation today, but also takes a historic perspective, citing land reforms instituted by Douglas MacArthur after World War II, when he broke up the Japanese feudal landlord based system where land ownership was the privilege of few and most farmers were tenants on the land they farmed. I guess that is where the American concept of bringing US style democracy to conquered nations originates and someone now needs to clean up the mess. And not stopping there, this piece of excellent journalism then touches on retailers taking charge of their upstream supply chain by purchasing farms, academics uttering stern warnings about cheap imports from abroad, food self-sufficiency in terms of calories ratios, crop substitution and the definition freshness.

The second to last ‘word’ belongs to lettuce grower Nakajima…

“Our lettuce is good and when it comes to freshness, foreign products won’t be able to match us. But I sometimes wonder whether people see the difference.”

Well spoken for a lettuce grower and part-time speed skater and welcome to the “what constitutes freshness?” debate.

So – what is the role of Government – in New Zealand, in Japan or elsewhere? And what should Government’s relationship with the agricultural sector be?

Bloomberg is quoting Japanese Prime Minister Abe as saying , “Agriculture is the most difficult sector to reform”. How much reform is needed though? Are farmers business people? They sure are and if they are not, they need to become so quick smartly. But surely food production ought to maintain a link with the place where the people live, even if some of our food can be easily exported or imported these days. And equally as surely, food production and land are inextricably intertwined.

Even greenhouses and factory farms do not float on air!