He's known to some as the Sonny Bill Williams of politics. But can Forestry Minister Shane Jones sidestep The Country host Jamie Mackay's curly questions about foreign ownership, the billion trees initiative and funding for Northland?

Shane Jones says farmers are too soft on the National Party and they need to stop "bitching and moaning".

Talking to Jamie Mackay on The Country today, the Minister of Forestry and Regional Economic Development launched a blistering attack on the nation's farmers.

Jones said he was disappointed in Federated Farmers president Katie Milne, who is on the board of directors of Westland Milk Products.


"This is what gets me about the farmers," Jones said. "We're not allowed to criticise them, but yet here they are, them and their ilk, they're allowing foreign ownership to take over our Westland Dairy.

"We can't stop it because the rules allow it. Then they acquiesce with the sale of brands such as Tip Top."

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Jones said farmers can't have it "both ways".

"I grew up on a farm, my dad was a farmer, I know what farmers are like and if they're not milking cows or chasing cows, they're moaning."

Mackay questioned Jones' "rather blunt" summation of "all the good folk who are working hard on the land today around the country".

"Well I can tell you," Jones said, "I go to the cow sales. They're always moaning at me that I'm plastering the land in trees but they never ever give me a shot to explain, trees are part of a grander future - where you can have both farming and trees. It's not just one or the other.

"I'm not the one who cut down the trees for all the ... corporate farming and the industrial irrigation. Our party didn't do that."

Jones asked why farmers don't ever criticise the National Party.

"[They] committed New Zealand to these onerous international targets for climate change.

"Why don't I ever hear criticism of that nature? All they do is criticise our farm/forestry approach which I'm leading.

Shane Jones said he was
Shane Jones said he was "disappointed" with Federated Farmers president Katie Milne Photo / Mark Mitchell

"That's why I really feel that they're not only selective in their criticisms but the Federated Farmers, they need to show leadership and realise that Katie [Milne has] got a difficult task, but also the dairy farmers need to show leadership and stop just bitching and moaning."

Jones said he'd also taken flak about regional development funding, including about the amount of money going to Northland, his home province.

"Northland's an area that was hugely neglected by the last regime, but I would say larger sums of money have gone down the East Coast [and] the West Coast.

Listen to the full interview below:

Mackay said that per capita Northland was not getting most of the money, "but when we look at it on dollars per region it's right up there. In fact it's at the top isn't it?"

"No it's not actually at the top," Jones said. "The one that's at the top's down the East Coast. I make no apologies for the fact that these are areas, including the Bay of Plenty, Manawatū, Whanganui that have been starved of attention.

"The $3 billion fund - the majority of the money has gone into the infrastructure deficit, through digital connectivity, some contributions to provincial connectivity for KiwiRail, roads.

"We're spending a bit of dough on researching and improving ports, for example, some of the money went on dredging the Greymouth harbour, that's led to a lot more efficiency. The boats can come in there, the factories can employ more people.

"The media should bear in mind ... that I'm a retail politician. I was mandated by my leader Winston Peters to go out there, lead with my chin and talk up the fortunes of the provinces, and marry to their dreams full fiscal assistance, and that's what I do every single day, and I ain't stopping."

Mackay said Jones was criticised for not creating enough jobs, "but is it about creating jobs?".

Shane Jones in February pictured at the turning of the sod for the new roundabout on State Highway 1 in Northland. Photo / File
Shane Jones in February pictured at the turning of the sod for the new roundabout on State Highway 1 in Northland. Photo / File

"Well in actual fact the kaupapa – the purpose of the fund - does have employment as one of its outcomes but it also has productivity, it has connectivity, and it has the opportunity for us to turn around the imbalance in relation to long-term infrastructure.

"Jobs come when investment follows, and there are lots of jobs that have been created through the projects."

Jones said he would be attending this week's national Farm Forestry conference in Rotorua tomorrow.

New Zealand Farm Forestry Association conference focuses on future

"There's $500 million that's gone out of the Provincial Growth Fund to underwrite the costs of our trees strategy, the billion trees strategy. So this notion, and the wittering idea from these National Party clones otherwise known as the economists, bothers me not one iota."

Mackay asked about the billion trees: "In effect it's not a billion trees, it's half a billion trees because we were already planting the other half billion anyhow. Am I correct in saying that?"

"Therein lies the genius of the scheme," Jones said. "That we are incentivising, supporting and affirming an industry that was written out of the narrative of our economy by the last regime.

"The last regime hated forestry. This regime has come in, we're supporting the current investors, we've simplified the OIO so that they're not held up with reams of red tape.

"We've put many hundreds of million dollars aside for the farmers to gain access so they can put trees on their land to help cope with the costs of climate change.

"So it's completely on the button to say that this is a billion trees strategy. We're not personally going to plant them all, but we're going to lead the narrative and provide catalysing finance to achieve that target and I'm well and truly on my way to do it."

Jones is clearly a colourful politician. Mackay noted he'd been called the Sonny Bill Williams of politics and asked if he sat around coming up with these monikers himself.

"No, some of them are thrust upon me," Jones said.

"There's always theatre involved in politics. You never should assume that the average punter is either following politics or particularly interested in politics. So you've got to have a bunch of arrows in your quiver that enable you to get cut through, relate to people and enable people to see a wee bit of themselves and our ordinary imperfections in the people that they send to Parliament.

"That's my approach. I've done it all my life and I'm not about to change.

"I'm a retail politician, you've got to have a bit of humour, you've got to have a bit of colour in politics. Sure, I'm not everyone's cup of tea, but my message to the farmers – work with us."