The finance minister says farmers know full well that pricing agricultural emissions is as much about the country’s economy as it is the environment. He tells political editor Jo Moir his recent overseas travel only reinforced how important climate credentials will be.

The finance minister remains steadfast that putting a price on agricultural emissions is about delivering high quality products for climate-conscious consumers in the medium term.

He says the recent debate over the Government’s response to He Waka Eke Noa, and farmers being required to contribute toward emission costs, is missing a fundamental point.

“This is the thing that gets lost in the He Waka Eke Noa debate, is that the proposals we’ve been working through come from the industry, because the industry know they are going to need to demonstrate their credentials on climate in the next few years.

“We might be arguing about some elements of the proposal, but the actual idea that we don’t need to get a price on agricultural emissions, and that we can get away with not dealing with that is both wrong environmentally and economically, and that was reinforced to me while I was away,” Robertson told Newsroom.

Given the worldwide cost-of-living crisis, some of those arguing against the pricing proposals have queried how realistic it is that consumers in US and UK markets will actually pay more for sustainable meat products.

Robertson told Newsroom consumers would be “careful” about what they spent in the short-term but it’s the medium term that the Government was working to address.

“In New York, with the business people I met there, there was a lot of talk about conscious consumers and their desire to know and understand the climate footprint of the goods they’re buying, the sustainability footprint of that.

“And if I go back to my trip to the UK in August, again I was talking there with people who were saying the supermarket chains want to know the goods that have been produced out of New Zealand and sold in UK supermarkets are done in the most sustainable way,” Robertson said.

“Farmers are saying ‘help us tell our story’ – they want to be part of the solution, and want to be farming more sustainably than the generation before.” – National finance spokesperson Nicola Willis

In addition, Finland and Canada’s finance ministers – unprompted – raised New Zealand’s work on pricing agricultural emissions with Robertson while he was in the US.

“There was a really high level of interest there.

“Sure, in a cost-of-living crisis people are going to be careful about what they spend, but the indication we were getting is that certainly in the medium term this is going to remain a really important part of how New Zealand makes its way in the world.”

Robertson told Newsroom the climate featured heavily in his business meetings in New York and at the annual International Monetary Fund (IMF) meeting in Washington, where he was with finance ministers from around the world.

“One of the things people were fearful of, although I’m not sure it was totally borne out, is that when things get tough, countries tend to look more inward, and so issues like climate start to not be focused on so much.

“But actually…the climate crisis is very much front and centre – it’s the core of the World Bank work they’re doing now, and they want to partner with countries like New Zealand in the Pacific,” he said.

In saying that, some at the meetings still feared several countries might be “backing off a bit”.

National’s finance spokesperson Nicola Willis told Newsroom farmers already knew they needed to improve their climate credentials and were completely open to doing so.

“Farmers are saying ‘help us tell our story’ – they want to be part of the solution, and want to be farming more sustainably than the generation before.”

She said the Government’s answer was a proposal that would see some farms shut down, and that was not a solution.

Being the first country to price agricultural emissions was risky and needed to be done carefully, Willis said.

“People don’t want a big experiment that fails, and failure that would be potentially irreversible,” she said.

The downbeat outlook

The IMF meeting in Washington was Robertson’s third and he said it was “definitely the most downbeat”.

“Everyone acknowledged 2022 would be quite tough, but it was the realisation 2023 would be as well that was behind the downbeat mood.”

While everyone is dealing with high inflation, Robertson said the European mood was mostly affected by the Ukraine war and the impact that was having on energy-related issues.

The relationship with China and the slowing of its economy as it remained closed in pursuit of a zero Covid policy was also a talking point, and the spill over effect that would have on other global economies.

Yet when Robertson spoke to New Zealand chief executives from both small and large businesses who joined him on the New York leg of the trip as part of a business delegation, the mood was much more positive.

While the NZ Herald Mood of the Boardroom was less than kind to the Government, Robertson said he’d always had good relationships with business leaders.

“At a personal level I’ve never had any difficulty in my relationships with senior boardroom folk in New Zealand. There will, from time to time, be issues they are concerned with.”

He said, if anything, the impression seemed to be that businesses were positive about their own outlook and New Zealand’s, but when it came to the rest of the world things got a bit gloomier.

“I don’t underestimate the impact of the day-to-day struggles many people are having, but I think our story remains a good one.” – Grant Robertson

In December the mood of some New Zealanders will be tested when Hamilton West goes to the polls for a by-election, after independent MP Gaurav Sharma resigned from Parliament last week.

While Robertson says by-elections are often about more localised issues, he accepts people are doing it tough generally.

“Right around the world incumbent governments are taking some of the flak for that, so it’s inevitable there will be some elements of that.”

But Robertson says the by-election will also be an opportunity for Labour.

“The economy has continued to do relatively well, we’ve got New Zealanders in work, we’ve got plans for how we’re going to be developing our economy to be sustainable to create those high-paying jobs.

“I don’t underestimate the impact of the day-to-day struggles many people are having, but I think our story remains a good one.”

Sharma is contesting the seat as an independent and the National Party is also going through the process of selecting a candidate.

National’s campaign chair, Chris Bishop, has described the by-election as a “three-horse race” between Labour, National and Sharma.

ACT, TOP and New Zealand First are yet to announce if they will run a candidate.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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