July 16th, 2015


I'm sure you'll find this riveting

Last night I was accidentally copied into an email chain regarding a petition against the new Health and Safety legislation, which places more accountability on the owners and managers of organisations to be actively involved in implementing safety. The petition is among farmers who feel the legislation will place unfair levels of regulation on their practices.

Now, I've had cause to do a bit of research on this legislation in my role with Kiwiburn, and I've had a good look at it. It's still in draft and is currently stalled with the select committee, but we're expected to hear back any day. But, it's *legislation*. It's very high level direction and it outlines accountability, responsibility, and rules around how safety plans must be made and implemented. It doesn't go into details, as far as I know.

So I'm curious why these people think the legislation will tell them they can't carry a passenger on a quad, for example. All I can think is that the good practice guidelines (published in 2014) say that, and that farmers believe they will be forced by the law to adhere to this.

What the legislation says is actually (more or less) that people must take all reasonable practicable steps to mitigate hazards. So if it's unreasonable to not carry a passenger (ie there is no alternative vehicle such as a ute available), then other measures to reduce the hazard of an extra passenger (helmets or limitations on off-track use, for example) are likely acceptable. There are even matrices to help work this stuff out.

So anyway, the other thing that bothers me is the contention that grassroots farmers have not been consulted on this legislation. I don't know the truth of this but I am familiar with consultation processes, and I know that at this level, industries are often represented by peak bodies (in this case probably Federated Farmers) in these consultations. There's a responsibility on the peak body to disseminate information to the people it represents, and gather opinion to share with those doing the work that stems from consulation.

So if the farmers really haven't been consulted, then I place that on Federated Farmers. If the farmers have been fed misleading and scaremongering information, I also place that on Federated Farmers. However, I also know that this type of consultation often happens through mailing lists, focus groups, surveys, bulletins, and the like - and if anyone happens to click 'archive' on an email without reading it, they may well miss the consultation round.

Lots of industries in New Zealand have been trained over the years to consider safety to be nothing more than a compliance cost, and to object to basically anything they interpret as potentially producing more cost. My reading of this legislation doesn't reveal a lot of compliance cost to be honest, and it doesn't seem to me that people will have to do much more than what they are already doing - if they are currently following the legislation we have. If people have been skimping on safety then they will be more accountable if there's an accident, is basically all, and there's a better tool for assessing risk and thus allocating mitigation budget. But try telling that to Federated Farmers, which is basically a lobby group who seem to object to anything they see as not increasing profit to agribusiness. That is their job, after all.

However, what I'm seeing here is a disconnect between the farmers themselves and the peak body that represents them, and that's worrying. Especially when I kind of have a foot in both camps, and have a certain amount of personal sympathy for farmers given how much of my life I've spent in the industry. I don't like the idea of people seeing the antics of Federated Farmers and assuming that all farmers think like that. I also don't like the idea that the Feds are potentially either failing to consult effectively with their industry, or misrepresenting information to farmers to elicit a reaction that supports their agenda, or both. And even worse, I dislike that farmers are buying into the idea that accountability for safety adds up to nanny statism and thus they must object on principle. Because then what they feed back to the Feds *will* be exactly what the Feds want to hear.

I guess I'm not a fan of manipulation, and I'd like to think farmers are smarter than that. Unfortunately, the petition reads badly and will likely not get any traction where it counts. But I sure hope someone with some sympathy for farmers sees it and considers how it might have come about, because it seems to me that there could be improvements in the way that this industry and its peak body communicate.

Just saying.