While National’s leadership spent the weekend at their conference trying to convince their provincial members that all was well the tensions between their rural constituencies and the rest of the party were  clearly on display.

They surfaced during a debate on a remit calling for a reduction in WorkSafe New Zealand fines for safety offences.

The remit was sparked by the Marlborough case of a farming couple who were fined $40,000 for persistently not wearing helmets on their quad bikes.

The remit came from the Hamilton West electorate which includes some dairy farming country to the north and south of the city.

Hamilton West delegate, Alan McKie said he had no issue with requiring farmers to wear helmets and he believed they should be fined when they didn’t.

“But the size of this fine is severely disproportionate,” he said.

“Given the economic climate that farmers are operating in today with most making a financial loss this season and probably next season as well, a fine of this magnitude would be likely to send some to the wall.”

Waikato delegate Don Coles said   that the bulk of complaints to Federated Farmers which used to be about the Resource Management Act were now about WorkSafe New Zealand.

“The reality is that farmers see this as cocky bashing,” he said.

“If you don’t deal with this issue you are going to pay the price at the polls.”

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But the farmers found they had some opposition.

Tony Jacques from Rotorua said “we simply have been killing too many people.”

“Our forestry has been a mess but they are getting it right.

“But I’m sure if we didn’t have fines as end options, they wouldn’t try as hard as they are at the moment.”

Voting on the remit was tight and unusually for a National Party conference it went to a vote count and the farmers lost, with 208 against and only 173 in favour.

But even so the debate had exposed a widespread view that WorkSafe New Zealand has simply been too zealous in its enforcement of health and safety standards.

And that view was part of the reason the Government announced on the eve of the conference a whole series of changes to its controversial Health and Safety in Employment Bill.

But even with the changes it has yet to sort out a critical aspect of it.

Simply the amendments are:

  • Coverage of volunteers will remain the same as the provisions under the current law.  
  • Every organisation will have an obligation to have a worker participation requirement but there will be more flexibility in how to meet that requirement, particularly for small lower risk businesses.   
  • Farmers’ duties will be clarified to clearly indicate where and when they do or do not extend on the farm. 

But the question of what is a “small lower risk business” is unresolved.

The Minister, Michael Woodhouse, says it will be worked on by the Ministry of Business, Innovation n and Employment and attached a schedule to the Bill.

However that may not happen till after the Bill has been passed.

But he made the point that risk is not simply a function of size.

He was also dropping heavy hints that forestry gangs would not be exempt from the requirement to have a worker safety representative who would have powers to obtain information about the workplace and to make recommendations to the employer on safety which could be enforced by WorkSafe New Zealand.

But as was evidenced in the conference debate, there is a concern that WorkSafe New Zealand has been overly zealous in its interpretation of the current law.

Mr Woodhouse understands this concern.

But he points out that as far as the conference remit was concerned, it was the Court not WorkSafe who imposed the fine and that there was “much more to that case than meets the eye.”

“But (the debate) also reflects amongst the farming community a significant apprehension about the way in which the new law will affect them,” he said.

However he said that the changes announced on Friday “and the small changes I will further make has eased a lot of the tension.”

Yet WorkSafe is plainly a sensitive issue for the Government.

Mr Woodhouse agrees that there is a perception that WorkSafe New Zealand has been perceived by some as being overzealous.

“I have been very clear that while the changes to the law are very important in improving our health and safety at work but what will really make the step changes are those changes in behaviours and attitudes, including the regulator,” he said.

“The Government very much expects the regulator (WorkSafe to act as educators and engagers in business rather than being punishers of business.

“I don’t think they always get that right and that’s certainly the cellar expectation I’ve set for them and that’s the journey I’m setting them pout on.”

The Government has plainly dodged a bullet on this issue.

And though the farmers lost their remit, the decline in dairy prices will put more pressure on rural communities.

The combined effect of the Northland by-election loss and the dissent over this Bill should surely have reinforced the need in the Beehive to keep the heartland on side.