National's new agriculture spokesperson David Bennett accuses Government of using farmers to just 'pay the bills'

Bennett replaced Todd Muller as agriculture spokesperson.
Bennett replaced Todd Muller as agriculture spokesperson. Photo credit: Getty/Facebook

National's new spokesperson for agriculture says the Government is failing to listen to farmers, and is merely using them as a means to "pay the bills".

David Bennett, MP for Hamilton East, became the agriculture spokesperson after Todd Muller left the post to become the party's leader last week. 

Bennett's move to spokesperson comes after he made headlines in March for encouraging people to panic-buy ahead of the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.

Speaking to Magic Talk's Rural Today on Wednesday, he said the Government was quick to credit the agriculture industry for its success during the recent months, but the reality was the sector was being used as just a "cash cow".

"The Government's made it quite clear that it sees agriculture as a huge part of the recovery for the economy. It's probably the only industry that was able to function during the lockdown," Bennett told Rural Today. "But it's more than that, it's not just the cash cow for New Zealand going forward, it's actually about providing a future environment where agriculture and horticulture prosper and deliver the best return and the best technology for New Zealand going forward."

The former president of Young Farmers worked as a dairy farmer for around a decade in Te Awamutu before turning to politics.

He says the Government is taking a short-term view of the sector in the wake of the COVID-19 fallout.

"They're quite comfortable to use farmers at the moment when they need that income coming in from overseas, in the next year or so, but I don't think they're going to listen to them around some of the reforms they want to do around environment and water storage and also water use and nitrogen use and other things on farms. I don't think they're listening to them in the context that farmers need to be heard."

In the economic fallout from COVID-19, the Government would be too reliant on using "the chequebook" to pay the bills, he said.

"We want to actually have a different vision, and we want farmers to go out there and make their businesses more productive and the best they can be rather than just be seen as something to pay for debts that have been racked up this year."  

Bennett said as well as listening to farmers more, the Government needed to be less "dogmatic" in its approach to the sector.

In 2017, after the Labour-led Government came to power, Bennett accused it of embarking "on a socialist experiment".

On Wednesday he said he stood by that comment.

"I was really just pointing out their socialist tendencies and we've seen that over time with the Government about what they want to do as well. That's part of the politics of Opposition and our job is to point out what their direction is, where they want to go from here and they're very much in a controlled environment, they want to control people's lives. We want to give farmers the ability to make their own commercial decisions."

Because farmers were subject to markets, they were best equipped to make their own decisions about how to respond to challenges caused by markets, he said.

Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor said the Government's record in how it dealt with the sector "speaks for itself".

"I’m happy to stand by our record of working with farmers through some pretty challenging times to ensure that agriculture continues to be at the heart of our productive economy," O'Connor told Newshub.

"I will continue to work to ensure farmers get more for what they do, not just asking them to do more - as the National Party do."