National Leader Simon Bridges is having to fend off an incipient uprising among the party’s farmer members over his decision to support a Labour Bill in Parliament last Thursday.
The Bill — the National Animal Identification and Tracing Amendment Bill — was designed to make a series of technical amendments to legislation to allow Ministry of Primary Industry officials to deal with the Mycoplasma Bovis outbreak.
POLITIK understands that rural electorates have been messaging Bridges protesting at his support of the legislation.
National’s farmer MPs have accused Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor of introducing draconian powers into the Bill that would allow MPI officials to enter farms without warrants and to seize items and film or photograph the farm.
Nevertheless, the former Agriculture Minister, Nathan Guy told Parliament that National would cautiously support the legislation.
POLITIK understands that that position was not without some debate among National’s senior MPs, some of whom are believed to have differed with the approach of both Guy and Bridges who had both previously assured the Government they would support moves to eradicate M Bovis.
Indeed, Bridges, phoned Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier this year to confirm his support.
At the very least the dissidents are believed to have wanted National to vote against that section of the legislation which contained the increased powers.
An indication of the level of rhetoric building up on National’s backbench came last Wednesday in Parliament from Clutha-Southland MP, Hamish Walker.
“This bill is an “invasion of human rights,” he said.
“Human rights and civil liberties are out of the window.
“This is a police state type of bill.
“This is a Big Brother bill.”
That sort of view spread rapidly out of Parliament and into the party membership at large.
By Monday the rural media were in a state of some excitement.
On the farm radio show “The Muster” host Andy Thompson said there was fear and confusion in the farming community.
The “Farmers’ Weekly” quoted an Ashburton lawyer who said The extent of MPI’s search and surveillance powers over farmers exceeded what police had over suspected drug dealers “but, more significantly, add to the stress many farmers are already under dealing with this disease.”
“It flies in the face of all the messages that MPI wants to work alongside farmers to eradicate the disease,” said Kirsten Maclean.
Host of “the Country” Jamie Mackay suggested to O’Connor that the new legislation would allow MPI officials to come “jackbooting” on to farms.
At the core of the debate is a provision in the Act which extends an existing law which allows an MPI officials to go on to a farm without a search warrant to “inspect’ the farm if the Ministry suspects there is an issue with the National Animal Tracing and Identification system (NAIT)
The law does not allow the official to enter the farmhouse and it requires that they confine their activities to inspection.
Under the new law, they would be given the same powers to conduct their “inspection” as they would have if they were carrying out a search under a warrant including the power to “seize” material that might be useful to any investigation.
Those powers also include the ability to use force.
A more measured response came from a former National Minister of Agriculture, David Carter, during debate in Parliament on the legislation last Wednesday night.
“I want to know about these increased powers of search and surveillance, because it’s been explained to me, by the officials, that it now means a NAIT office can come on to my farm and, with the powers in this legislation, can grab all my financial records, can take any records that they want, and I can do nothing about it
“That’s what it seems to me, and the officials were unable to deny it.
“Carter said officials had told him the officers could not come into his house.
“Well, Damien O’Connor knows how the farming industry works.
“When you get a visitor, the first thing you do is say, Come in. We’ll sit around the kitchen table in my house.
“In other words, inadvertently the farmer has invited the officer into the house, and that gives that officer the chance to seize any information he or she wants. “
O’Connor replied saying MPI officials were entitled to go into a property, but not a house, without a warrant if they believed compliance had not been adhered to.
“And when there, they are able to lawfully seize what they believe might be useful property,” he said.
He said the reason for this was that in investigating M Bovis, MPI had found it had only a limited ability to go and get the information it needed.
“They want the people who are blatantly disregarding the law to be caught and penalised and prosecuted,” he said.
“And we need to be able to get the information to do that when we believe that a farmer is noncompliant when they might go on to a property to try and verify that.
“And if they see evidence that they think would be useful, at the moment they can’t seize it.
“So we believe they should be able to.”
National MP, Gerry Brownlee, said to be one the stronger opponents of the legislation in the National caucus, said the bill granted extraordinary powers to a small group of people who hadn’t use their existing powers properly.
“I don’t for one minute think that there would have been the mistakes that were made in original investigations in the M. bovis problem had there been proper warrants sought and perhaps even police assistance in getting the information required for prosecutions,” he said.
National has been through these sorts of rural uprisings before; in 2015 it was the rural members of the party who pressured their MPs over the way it was proposed new heal5th and safety legislation would apply to farms.
But then National was in Government and could easily change things.
Now it is in opposition, and it has allowed the offending legislation to pass and is therefore left impotent to make any changes.
However, the present legislation has been rushed, and O’Connor says he will present a more considered Bill to Parliament later in the year.
Labour is promising a complete rewrite of the M Bovis legislation by the end of the year.
They should expect a more robust response from the Opposition then.