Grappling with the big issues
West Coast–Tasman MP Damien O’Connor on life as a Government minister
Long-time West CoastTasman MP Damien O’Connor is all smiles. ‘‘I’m enjoying this new job after nine years in a less-than-ideal one,’’ says the Labour politician and cabinet minister. ‘‘I guess the excitement and challenge of a ministerial position is very motivating, working with a good team and the never-ending list of challenges.’’
Those challenges have included the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis. As Agriculture Minister, O’Connor has been involved with a plan to eradicate the disease – and he believes it can be done.
‘‘I’m very confident that, so far, we’re on track, and subject to the co-operation of farmers and transporters and everyone, I think we can get there.’’
It was always going to be a huge challenge starting from a base of ‘‘very low levels of animal traceability compliance’’, he says.
‘‘Farmers hadn’t been given the message that this was important and . . . there was limited science around M. bovis in an environment like ours, and so I think we’ve done really well with the help of the best technical experts in the world to come up with a plan and to implement it and to be so far on track by all indicators.’’
O’Connor says he appreciates the ‘‘terrible reality’’ for those farmers affected. ‘‘This will seem catastrophic but we’ve shown that with help, with compensation, with assistance, farmers can get through this and carry on farming.’’
O’Connor, who is also Minister for Biosecurity, Food Safety and Rural Communities, and Minister of State for Trade and Export Growth, says he does not believe M. bovis has dominated the rural portfolios.
‘‘I think it’s provided an opportunity to have really useful discussions about where we’re heading in agriculture, the importance of animal welfare, the importance of traceability, the importance of quality systems throughout the whole supply chain, and we’ve been saying to farmers, along with good environmental practice, we have to show the world that we can be the best farmers, producing the best products in the world.’’
Just after his ministerial appointments in October 2017, O’Connor told The Nelson Mail his big push for the first term was the development of ‘‘strategic visions’’ and plans for all primary sectors. He says an independent group given that task is due to report back to the wider rural sector in early 2019.
‘‘In the meantime, M. bovis, our clear signals on water quality, international signals on animal welfare and quality of products has meant farmers are now, I think, looking for direction as to what they need to do to meet their international obligations around environmental management, animal welfare, labour relations, climate change . . . to continue to produce the finest-quality protein and fibre in the world.’’
In his electorate, O’Connor has faced criticism for being relatively quiet on some key issues, such as the controversial Waimea dam project.
The project, to be funded by a mix of ratepayer, irrigator and Crown funding, was given the nod by Tasman District Council (TDC) on November 30. Nelson MP Nick Smith has been a vocal supporter of the project.
‘‘I have been in a somewhat difficult situation because as one of the ministers responsible for funding from the irrigation scheme, my partner has been working at TDC, and so I’ve had to step back from key decisionmaking and clearly public advocacy,’’ O’Connor explains. ‘‘I have, however, followed the process very closely.
‘‘I think the challenging situation the council found itself in was in large part because of historical mismanagement of the whole issue of water in Nelson and Tasman. People have underappreciated the need for longterm supply and security for residential, industrial and rural water.’’
The dam, to be built in the Lee Valley, is desperately needed, he says.
‘‘We have, right throughout this country, hundreds of examples of underinvestment in core infrastructure that will cost ratepayers and taxpayers billions of dollars into the future.
‘‘We’ve underinvested in drinking water, wastewater and stormwater management to the detriment of our environment, our water quality and often those decisions have been because councils hadn’t been prepared to be upfront with their ratepayers and point out the need for investment.’’
O’Connor agrees that the costs can be high for ratepayers. ‘‘Absolutely, and clearly that’s one of the things that our Government is looking at: the whole issue of the reliance on rates as a funding base for local government.’’
So does that mean central Government will help more when it hands down edicts to councils, such as an expected tightening of the rules for the management of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater in the wake of its three waters review?
O’Connor says Wellington is ‘‘absolutely’’ cognisant of the multitude of drinking water systems around the country. ‘‘We are and we’re not ignoring that reality in the discussions we’re having. It doesn’t make the solutions any easier.’’
Tasman district alone has 17 systems, some of which are rural schemes used mostly to provide water for stock along with a couple of houses. It has been estimated that it would cost up to $22m to bring them all up to the drinking water standards.
It is ‘‘quite frankly a nightmare when you have a look at the obligation on central and local government to provide safe drinking water . . . when you face the multitude of systems and options that we have now’’, O’Connor says.
‘‘In the end, we all live in the one country, and as either ratepayers or taxpayers pay that, but if you’ve had nine years of a government saying, ‘Less tax is better’, then you clearly end up with insufficient funding to cover the core infrastructural needs of a country that has been growing.’’
That’s why Labour reversed tax cuts National had promised. ‘‘We said no because we understand the need to invest in infrastructure, and we’ve started with more money in rundown hospitals across the country, in rundown schools across the country, such as in Golden Bay, more money into roading . . . these are core needs of a country going forward.’’
O’Connor says he believes the most significant issue in his electorate is housing.
‘‘I can’t understand how people can pay over half a million dollars for a house on basic, average wages – and beyond that is beyond my comprehension.
‘‘Our economy has, for the last nine years, been based on keeping wages low, bringing in migrant labour and allowing house prices to escalate to the point where . . . it’s simply unsustainable and unachievable for Kiwis to dream of having their own home.’’
‘‘I think wages have to go up,’’ O’Connor says. ‘‘That’s certainly one of the goals of our Government – to put more income in the pockets of every Kiwi so they can afford not just a house but food, healthcare, education – the basics of living.’’
He backs the KiwiBuild programme, which has come under heavy criticism from the Opposition, including Smith.
‘‘KiwiBuild is a huge, ambitious project but . . . this was the only way forward to break the back of what is a massive challenge in housing,’’ O’Connor argues. ‘‘Nick Smith and his ideological mates who think the market will solve this – or subsidising land developers will solve this – are dreaming.’’
KiwiBuild will be refined, ‘‘and there’ll be many things we have to learn and mistakes made, but if we weren’t to try this, it’s Kiwis who suffer’’.
‘‘The excitement and challenge of a ministerial position is very motivating.’’
West CoastTasman MP Damien O’Connor’s challenges as Agriculture Minister have included the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis – but he says the most significant issue in his electorate is housing.