Grap­pling with the big is­sues

West Coast–Tas­man MP Damien O’Con­nor on life as a Gov­ern­ment min­is­ter

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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.

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