Federated Farmers backs Todd Muller's agri-business background as 'vital' for National Party

A farmer lobby group is hoping National's new leader will use his agri-business background to help rural sectors, as concerns regarding New Zealand's water storage and security continue to boil. 

Drought-ravaged Northland continues to battle an ongoing water shortage, while Auckland grapples with new restrictions as the city's dams decrease by the day. 

Federated Farmers' CEO Terry Copeland says new National Party leader Todd Muller is a promising figure. Since mid-2019, Muller has been the Opposition's spokesperson for agriculture, biosecurity, food safety and forestry - roles Copeland believes are fitting in addressing the current concerns.

"I think it's really positive we have a leader of a major party with an extensive background in agriculture - in a business sense but also a philosophical sense. I think it's really practical having a person who had a spokesmanship in agriculture take on leadership," Copeland told Newshub.

"Having a leader that can help farmers think about resilience and how we are going to get out of an economic [crisis] is how we can build farming to be in its rightful place as the powerhouse of our economy. I think having someone of his character in there is going to be vital for the National Party."

Copeland says investment in agriculture is first on the agenda in upcoming discussions with Muller. He wants to see an improvement in rural infrastructure, including broadband, roading and water storage - a major issue affecting multiple regions across New Zealand amid ongoing drought. 

Storing non-potable water for agricultural purposes is particularly important, Copeland says.

"One of the things we're advocating for is water stores - not necessarily just irrigation, but actually having water on-hand. Auckland is in bad straits when it comes to water, the farming community is in dire need of water in Northland... Hawke's Bay is under huge sweat right now [due to] this lack of water. It's going to be a real societal issue, not just a farming issue," he explained.

The CEO is hopeful that Muller - if he becomes Prime Minister - will strike "a balance" between environmental concerns and allowing New Zealand's farming industry to flourish, a sector he says is crucial in getting the country out of its post-COVID economic downturn.

"I think it's that balance between environmental sustainability - that the whole country wants - and the transition plan for how to get there. So rather than just blunt legislation, which might prevent New Zealand getting out of its recession, actually [focus on] how it can support farmers in transitioning to the required environmental and agricultural practices to take the country forward."

In August, the Environment Aotearoa 2019 report by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ said nearly half of climate pollution in 2016 came from agriculture. Almost 95 percent of all nitrous oxide emissions were from agricultural soils - mainly from the urine and dung of grazing animals.

Moves to lead New Zealand towards more sustainable agriculture - an industry which has faced scrutiny for its environmental impacts, including pollution and greenhouse gas emissions - may compromise farming's position as an "economic powerhouse", Copeland says. He worries that tough legislation may negatively affect the sector by encouraging farmers "to change everything" to protect the environment.

"We all understand the environment is important to this country, but we've got to do it in a way that doesn't stop farming from being that powerhouse in the economy that will drag us out of recession and employ a whole lot of people.

"Rather than concentrating on pretty heavy-handed legislation, look at practical, on-the-ground projects that can lift the environmental footprint, provide a bit more resilience and give us a story to tell - rather than relying on farmers to change everything to satisfy one particular viewpoint."

Muller was voted in by the National Party caucus as leader of the Opposition on Friday, replacing Simon Bridges. Nikki Kaye, who previously had a stint as Food Safety Minister between 2013 and 2014, was elected to take over Paula Bennett's role as deputy.