The week that was…in Kiwi (Agri)-Politics – Week 35


New Zealand is being treated to the spectacle of the three stooges candidates for the Labour Party Leadership juggling tripping around the country competing for the votes of party members, with attending Parliamentary question time to demonstrate to their caucus colleagues how they would perform against Prime Minister John Key in the chamber. Each man obviously has their supporters and detractors, and inevitably, they can’t helpful themselves and are wading in to influence the leadership election outcome.  Depending upon whom one listens to then, Shane Jones is therefore being described either as a larrikin with a mini-bar & video channel problem, a healthy male or the shining political light for Tangata Whenua; Grant Robertson’s labels range from graphic descriptors of his sexuality and being an inexperienced ex-diplomat, to gifted debater and consummate caucus unifier; whereas David Cunliffe is simultaneously being referred to as the only hope Labour has got to win the next election and being the soon to be published author of ‘The Dummies’ Guide to Walking On Water.’

Regardless of whether one does care as a  Labour supporter or does not care about Labour Party politics because one typically votes for another party or not at all; or whether one cares deeply for democracy’s sake but  just wishes they would get on with it and ‘stop the circus’ as Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott put it so aptly yesterday; it is time we actually started to look at the views and policies of the organisation rather than the theatrics of the individuals.

At the recent Horticulture New Zealand conference  in Wellington Labour’s Horticulture spokesperson Damien O’Connor spoke and you can find a copy of his address here.

I want to pick up on three points O’Connor made during his address and these relate to leadership, the type of food producer we want to be, and the Primary Growth Partnership programme.

Leadership is essential in any setting where a group of people or organisations are working towards a common goal. Where leadership is lacking or weak, indecisiveness, poor decision-making and under-optimised outcomes are the order of the day. Leadership does not equate to dictatorship nor is leadership the responsibility of a single organisation or individual, particularly not in Horticulture. We are not the meat industry where the export energy ultimately revolves around bits of dead animal being shipped somehow somewhere, in various degrees of pan & pot readiness over a period of time that is not always mission critical.

Horticulture works to a different agenda where the dynamics of, for example, pip fruit, are not always compatible with those of kiwifruit, potatoes or green leafy vegetables. We therefore need to have a clear understanding where we can optimise our leverage through industry wide leadership and where strong sector leadership is more appropriate.

I don’t think we are there yet.

O’Connor outlined the choices of being a low value high volume anonymous commodity producer with low brand equity or a high value, known exporter with high brand equity. If we were really living in an either/or environment, then the choice would be a non-brainer. But life is not as simple as that. Ultimately, we want to be both. We want to export high value fresh produce known for its health and well-being benefits from a country with a reputation for the highest standards in production, post harvest management and food safety (a bit of remedial work required in this area) – and we want to see as many as possible processed FMCG products developed which are fruit or vegetable based and can be enhanced by our produce as opposed to that of other countries.

The lack of a horticultural presence in the Primary Industry Growth partnership programme is in my view a combination of the programme not being as workable for horticulture as it is for other primary industry sectors and a lack of maturity of our industry.  A couple of years back, The AgriChain Centre was part of a consortium that prepared a bid to establish a Primary Industry Growth partnership programme. Our application failed on two grounds. Firstly, the programme is based on the primary production applicant from the outset partnering with an existing value adding multiplier. The weakness of  that approach is that the opportunity for a commodity producer to make the paradigm shift to brand marketer – because that is ultimately where the value can be unlocked O’Connor is talking about – is blocked from the outset as that territory is already occupied by the proposed FMCG partner who is looking for ingredients not an emerging competitor. Secondly, the ‘partnership’ element of the ‘Primary Growth  Partnership’ model requires the applicant to commit to a 50/50 funding model. Our consortium presented an innovative proposal aimed at assisting growers to build value through moving their focus and activities to the value adding territory of the supply chain. This did not fit the narrow prescriptive criteria against which the MPI appointed panel evaluated proposals. Shortly thereafter the kiwifruit vine disease PSA hit the industry with brute force and the lead up to the 2012 compulsory levy vote meant that internal issues gained greater prominence.

Ultimately O’Connor is right though. Horticulture should not be missing in action in the Primary Growth Partnership model – so watch this space.

I found the overviews of O’Connor’s speech provided in the August editions of Orchardist and Grower not truly reflective of the messages he gave. When we do get politicians along to talk to us at a Conference, we need to engage.   And given New Zealand’s MMP electoral system, we may actually indeed find ourselves back with a Labour led Government next year – assuming that the successful one  of today’s Holy Trinity finds his feet and gets on with creating a robust and meaningful Opposition that provides our 2014 voters with a meaningful choice.  And 2014 is next year by the way!