Attempts by Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor to bury the hatchet with Federated Farmers by withdrawing claims the agricultural lobby leaked confidential information material have resulted in his apology letter being leaked.
The Herald has obtained a copy of a letter, sent by O'Connor to Federated Farmers national president Andrew Hoggard on September 17, concerning a long-simmering dispute between the government and the agricultural lobby.
Relations between the government and the agricultural lobby have been fractious over the past few years, with matters having come to boiling point last May when details of freshwater reforms, including planned limits on nitrogen leaching, leaked in May last year following their circulation to interested parties for consultation.
Federated Farmers was one of those interested parties.
O'Connor's letter noted he was replying to correspondence from Federated Farmers' solicitors and, while stopping short of a formal apology, the Minister said: "I acknowledge that there was a leak of the information in question, but that there is no means to specify who, and to which organisation they belong. I therefore withdraw the statement."
A spokesperson for O'Connor's office confirmed the authenticity of the letter, but declined an opportunity for the Minister to elaborate on or add to its contents. The spokesperson would only say the current relationship with Federated Farmers was "constructive".
The letter refers to an internal investigation at Federated Farmers which was unable to pin blame on anyone, and O'Connor said he accepts his allegations they were the source of the leaks was now a "misapprehension," but "given the lapse in time, I am unable to recall where I first encountered this suggestion".
Hoggard was surprised to hear O'Connor's letter had in turn been leaked, but acknowledged he had circulated it within Federated Farmers.
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"People were a bit upset about the allegation, and I let our provincial presidents know the letter had been received and that I wanted to leave the matter at that. Obviously someone else didn't," he said.
Hoggard said the freshwater dispute "was very touchy, and everyone was on edge there" and the fallout had seen the policy relationship between Federated Farmers and government "cut stone cold dead".
He said the relationship had warmed a little in the 18 months since, and he said he considered the matter closed: "Chance are we're not always going to agree with Wellington, but it's how it works."