Leadership in what we are good at

By Damien O'Connor

There have been many reports and studies relating to the advantages and future for agriculture and horticulture in New Zealand. They all make for encouraging reading and confirm the natural advantages we have over many of our competitors in the international marketplace.

Our history of adding Kiwi ingenuity and enthusiasm has delivered exports and income that continue to drive our economy at a reasonable level of prosperity.

The future looks bright, we are told. But there are challenges of production costs and environmental management that mean 'business as usual' is not going to deliver the growth and success we need.

And then we have the question of who will create this innovation and do this work.

Through the 1980s and 1990s many New Zealanders were discouraged from taking up careers in the primary industries. The numbers completing related degrees at Lincoln and Massey universities declined as the lure of software and soft living took young Kiwis to the world. Farming was on the way out, some believed.

Nevertheless, the facts show clearly that our wealth is still created by the same exports as has occurred for over 100 years, only the quality and quantity of those exports has improved.

We have some amazing stories of creation, innovation and Kiwi ingenuity, but our natural advantages still remain.

We are very good at turning rain and sunshine into valuable products for a world that needs fibre and protein. But we are not always good at maximising the value of these advantages with our skills and knowledge.

We are only 4.5 million people and a long way from our markets. If we don't work together we split our efforts and waste our opportunities. The dairy industry has shown how co-operation and co-ordination works. The wool industry shows the opposite. We have to decide which way we want for the future.

As the numerous reports state, time and time again, changes are needed if we are to maximise our potential. The latest study by the Riddett Institute is consistent with the others, but what it emphasises is the need for leadership to achieve the improved outcomes; leadership from both government and industry, not one without the other.

While it might be difficult for strong and independently-minded farmers to accept, industry leadership without active government participation cannot deliver the results we all need. Trade access, good infrastructure, environmental safeguards and accredited standards rely on sensible government. We need leadership that listens and is strong enough to intervene when necessary.

The challenge facing every New Zealand exporter is the relatively high value of the Kiwi dollar that pushes up the cost of our products to our customers and reduces returns to farmers. This is becoming a major problem, undermining our export sectors.

The emerging international wisdom is that governments need to ensure monetary policy works to reduce negative impacts on small, vulnerable, export-dependent economies, such as New Zealand. This does require vision and leadership, which the National Government refuses to embrace. Mainstream economic agencies are now calling on the Government to alleviate the growing upward pressure on the Kiwi dollar and Kiwi exporters.

Unfortunately, the only major intervention by the National Government is the determination to sell assets against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Kiwis. Our economy will struggle and continue to go backwards because of this.

We need strong leadership prepared to adjust with the changing needs of a dynamic and innovative economy. There are too many gaps in leadership from the National Government and, while that continues, rural New Zealand will stumble rather than stride into the future.

- Hamilton News

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