Tuesday, 31 October 2017 07:55

New minister to ring changes

Written by  Peter Burke
Damien O’Connor in Wellington last week. Damien O’Connor in Wellington last week.

A top priority for the new Minister for Agriculture Damien O’Connor will be appointing a primary industry council and a chief agricultural advisor to government.

This role is akin to that of the chief science advisor held by Sir Peter Gluckman.

The super Ministry of Primary Industries has been split into three ministries by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; Forestry and Fisheries will be separate portfolios under different ministers.

O’Connor will also be Minister for Biosecurity and Minister for Food Safety.

O’Connor admits the last nine years in opposition has been a battle and it’s nice now to be able to do things. In some ways the future is daunting given the changes possible in the rural agribusiness sector, he says.

“I have stated publicly, and it’s no offence to individuals, that there have been lots of leaders but not enough leadership.

“At a time when the world is changing very quickly, disruption is constant, we have too many people, too many companies and too many institutions determined to hang out for as long as they can on the basis of the current paradigm. We need to wake up, look out, listen and be in touch with the trends, values and expectations of customers and consumers.”

O’Connor says there is a multitude of organisations in the primary sector, all doing their own jobs for their members, shareholders and industry. But there is a need for greater collaboration and coordination.

“We have seen ad hoc attempts at this, but we need to form a body with some mana and authority to provide wisdom and leadership directly to government and back through the sectors.”

On biosecurity, O’Connor says this function is too important to compromise on and it is a top priority; hinting that the issues on biosecurity need to be better understood.

O’Connor promises to address the urban/rural divide, claiming some of this has been driven for political purposes.

As Labour takes office there is scepticism in some quarters of the rural community that they have lost their lifelong friend and advocate the National Party which grew out of the old Farmers Party.

Many seasoned political commentators, with some validity, rate Labour ministers of agriculture ahead of many National ministers. One of these was Jim Anderton and another Jim Sutton. Not surprisingly O’Connor shares this view.

“Just go look at history books and at the record of Labour in government. We have delivered consistently huge improvements for the primary sector every time we have been in government and I stand by that record,” he says.

Regarded as a right-winger

Damien O’Connor (59) was born in Westport and educated St Bedes College in Christchurch and Lincoln University.

He entered Parliament in 1993 and and has been there ever since, apart from a brief spell in 2008-09 when he lost his seat but later became a list MP.

He was Minister of Tourism, Minister for Rural Affairs, Immigration and Associate Health in Helen Clark’s government.

He is regarded as being a ‘right winger’ in the party. He is now the MP for West Coast Tasman and until his elevation to the cabinet last week was Labour spokesperson for primary industries, biosecurity and food safety.

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