When former Corrections Department boss Ray Smith moved to the top role at the Ministry for Primary Industries he was seen as a new broom. In nine months, Smith has refreshed strategy setting new goals around prosperity, sustainability, protection and visible leadership: 53 agreed actions are putting "meat on the bones." Smith sat down with Fran O'Sullivan at MPI's Wellington HQ to talk about his focus.
Herald: You said we should talk once you had your feet under the desk for at least six months at MPI. Give us an update?
People said to me "what's it like going from Corrections to MPI?" Well, at Corrections, you're managing risk. People getting hurt or losing their lives. You're worried about that all the time. Here, it's actually, I don't want to miss an opportunity for New Zealand. That means our kids get to experience the lifestyle growing up here that we did.
Herald: You've had a restructure and introduced new strategies, tell us more about these new plans that MPI has made.
Smith: We're still there to help make industries grow. But also to make sure that prosperity's spread a little further. Everyone wants to see a New Zealand where everyone benefits from the growth. So, that can be making sure that people that have struggled to even have a job find their way into an industry that needs workers and how we might play a role in helping facilitate that.
The other thing I can do, from my background, is I can connect with the social agencies in Wellington and I can bring them towards the picture and make sure that we are getting the people working in forestry or farming or wherever we have those deficits so that for those that are under-employed, and looking, or unemployed and looking for an opportunity, I can help maximise on that.
Herald: How's your personal style impacting the organisation?
Smith: I want us to be more open, more available and more engaged on issues that concern people. I said to people, "If I've got a plane to Beijing and my very first phone call is from a farmer in South Canterbury who is struggling with an M. Bovis problem. I'll take that call."
I have very deliberately made a point of being available to people. By listening to those individual stories of farmers, I've learned a lot about our systems and how they work or don't work for people, and I've had to roll my sleeves up and actually get involved in finding solutions at times when people were actually really struggling.
Herald: What has that led to in practice?
Smith: I want to make sure that we are the ministry for the primary industries and that where we have an opportunity to lead with them or on their behalf that we do so.
We're not shy about that.
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Where issues emerge in farming communities they want to have an area to go to and people to contact that are more familiar. We will have people connected here to a deputy director-general that will be in control of managing adverse events. So having been through the Nelson fires and obviously a bit of the flooding down on the West Coast, it just seemed obvious to me that we needed a stronger leadership capability that was much more community-orientated.
Herald: You are planning to introduce an extension service to support farmers.
Smith: We're not going to recreate what's already available in the private market, but we would like to be able to make more of that available. I'm putting in place four industry engagement managers that will work in my office to help me reach out to the industries that we connect with.
I'm putting in place an agricultural services unit to actually reach out to farmers on the ground, where they need support and help. And the moves that we need to make to become more sustainable.
Sometimes it's improving their profitability which has been a focus, and other times it's improving their environmental footprint. I've combined in there the Sustainable Futures Fund as well, so they basically have the investment arm, as well as their arm that's facing farm delivery where we want to see changes on the ground.
Herald: Tell us more about your own personal connection to farming.
Smith: I think about growing up in New Zealand — my brother's a dairy farmer — people taking jobs in the primary industries was something that a lot of young people gravitated to when I left school.
Whether it was in factories, or on farm, or, horticulture, we've lost a bit of connection with a group of New Zealanders who perhaps don't have the experience that perhaps someone of my generation grew up with.
You know, you could go on holiday when I was a kid and you could end up in a wool shed or catching an eel in a stream or, you could end up doing as I did, haymaking in the summer season and things like that. They gave you a connection to that New Zealand that we love.
Herald: How do you persuade young people to build a career in agri industries if they don't have that connection?
Smith: Skills are the thing. Training people and getting them excited about the industry.The way I look at it is this massive growth opportunity. If you look at horticulture, I mean, $6b aiming for $10b. Looks like that's entirely achievable.
There's going to be a demand for more and more labour in the horticulture area. So we need to appeal to these people to get them to want to work there.
I think there's a big job here of selling the primary industries back to a group of New Zealanders that maybe didn't grow up with them in the same way that some of us did in smaller rural communities and I think that's a bit of a job that we can assist industry with.
Herald: So to up-sum?
Smith: I've been busy. There's been the Nelson Fires and the Queensland fruit flies. There's been M. Bovis, there's been China and a trip to Australia. There's been a restructure and a new plan.