Agriculture seen as natural fit

Damien O'Connor. Photo: File
Damien O'Connor. Photo: File
Being raised in the dairy industry may not be the usual path to becoming a cabinet minister in a Labour-led government, but Damien O'Connor would not have it any other way.

The West Coast-Tasman MP was born and bred on a West Coast dairy farm, worked as a sharemilker and ran a tourism venture before entering parliament in 1993.

Mr O'Connor has now taken on the portfolios of agriculture, rural communities, biosecurity and food safety, having previously served as Associate Agriculture Minister under two ministers, Jim Sutton and Jim Anderton.

''I have been Minister of Tourism after running a small tourism operation, so I guess now being Minister of Agriculture, having come off a farm and done some sharemilking, was a natural progression.

''To come from a West Coast dairy farm to be a cabinet minister - that's probably only possible in a country like New Zealand.''

Mr O'Connor said his Irish-Catholic background shaped his values and he was one of ''a good healthy number'' of St Bede's College, Christchurch, old boys to have served as MPs in recent years.

''My Irish-Catholic upbringing certainly instilled in me some strong social values and the dairy industry is actually built on values of collaboration and co-operation.

''There's a surprising number of farmers who are Labour supporters, although they often keep quiet about it, and it's not surprising as the primary industry has a strong tradition of co-operatives.

''And I don't mind saying that agriculture always does better under Labour governments.''

Mr O'Connor said the Labour, New Zealand First and Green parties shared similar core values and were committed to ''agricultural sustainability''.

''I think all three parties have been frustrated by the previous government's direction and we look forward to making the changes needed to make agriculture more sustainable.

''During the negotiations we found our policies were very similar and there were areas where they (New Zealand First and the Greens) suggested improvements and we have agreed.''

Mr O'Connor said the new government would appoint a primary sector council to ''have a comprehensive and strategic look'' at the sector.

''It's an opportunity to do some fresh thinking, but first we need to take stock of where we are now and where we are going.''

He said vegetable-based proteins were coming and would impact on the sector in the long term, but could also open up opportunities both in producing the synthetics, but also from consumers willing to pay a premium for naturally produced food.

''You've got some very smart, visionary people putting lots of money into synthetics and we've got to understand they're not doing it for nothing.''

-By David Hill

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