MPI must rebuild trust

Ahead of today’s crucial Cabinet decision about the Mycoplasma bovis response, David Williams argues that MPI has a huge job ahead – to regain farmers’ trust.

OPINION: The Ministry for Primary Industries’ sensitivity over the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak shows that even if someone is talking that doesn’t mean the other side is listening.

Look at MPI chief operations officer Roger Smith’s response to Fairfax columnist Duncan Garner’s column on Saturday.

Garner takes a tough line with MPI, saying it “looks utterly useless” in dealing with the cattle disease, and he wonders if its response has made the situation worse or better. You’d be hard-pressed to find a person on the street who would disagree.

Smith went on the offensive later that day. He lambasted Garner’s column for being “factually incorrect in places, and unintelligible in others”, calling him out for his apparent “woeful lack of knowledge”. Smith did admit the response has “at times, not been perfect” – did anyone demand perfection? – and the outbreak had been “harder on individuals than it should have been”.

But that was a brief departure from attack. Smith wrote of Garner: “Once he has taken the time to do his homework, perhaps he would like to apologise to our hardworking staff who work day and night to protect our country from unwanted pests and diseases.”

MPI’s knee-jerk response, to attack the writer and defend itself at all costs, makes it appear too sensitive to criticism and unable to admit its failings. Garner, a former TV3 political editor and Canon Media Award-winning columnist, is well-connected and obviously worked his sources before putting fingers to keyboard. He pitched his criticism, rightly, at the top, at senior management and at the ministers who’ve overseen this mess. Because it is a mess.

In my opinion, Smith talked when he should have been listening.

I think MPI’s biggest job is not getting rid of M. bovis, it’s regaining trust.

The Garner-Smith bunfight is just a warm-up for a huge Cabinet decision – a $1 billion decision, by all accounts. Today, the Government is expected to decide how it will respond to M. bovis, either by eradication or long-term management. The political decision will take the heat off MPI, which can then get on with implementing it.

When the dust settles, and the debate about eradication – or not – is over, MPI needs to start listening. Listening to farmers, to vets, to business people. Because I think MPI’s biggest job is not getting rid of M. bovis, it’s regaining trust.

Garner’s not the only one having a go at MPI.

Others include Cambridge’s Henk Smit, whose farm has tested positive – “I’m very frustrated with MPI” – and South Canterbury’s Wilma Van Leuuwen, who told RNZ that MPI had been slow, uncoordinated and under-prepared. The sharemilkers who ran the South Canterbury farm where M. bovis was first discovered are now living in a caravan in Australia. “Mycoplasma and MPI has ruined our life, our whole livelihood, our business,” Sarel Potgieter told Newshub.

(MPI admits compensation payments have been too slow. Biosecurity response director Geoff Gwyn told Newshub: “I lose sleep over the fact there are people out there suffering as a result of the actions we’re putting on, and I know it’s cold comfort for them, but they are taking a hit for the national herd.”)

It doesn’t stop there, however. Criticism of MPI is also happening in the supermarket aisles, over the bar in rural pubs and over farm fences. Most importantly, it’s happening at the dining table, shaping the attitudes of the next generation of farmers. Many are probably saying the same things as the infected farmers – but some are undoubtedly going further.

In South Canterbury, there’s talk that there have been signs of disease in some herds for years. Given what’s happened, some are asking why authorities were told at all.

Trouble ahead

That’s the biggest problem. A few people tell me the way MPI has handled this outbreak means, they think, some farmers won’t be inclined to report problems in the future. They don’t think MPI has their back. This is not to defend such behaviour, but to give the authorities a heads-up. If that attitude spreads like M. bovis has, there’s trouble ahead.

Of course, in Roger Smith’s perfect world, everyone would do the right thing. But human nature – as proved by the failure of the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) system – tells us that doesn’t always happen.

MPI can’t possibly put field officers in every farm, so it has to rely on farmers to report problems. But this mood of mistrust, born of M. bovis, creates a climate of fear and self-reliance rather than faith in the system. The country needs faith, however, and it’s up to MPI to restore it.

What we’ve seen in recent months, however, is farmers turning on farmers, as the secrecy over which farms are infected leads to suspicion and accusation, not just about who knew what but when they knew it. The slowness or non-existence of compensation payments is an added stress. Businesses are failing, people are struggling and MPI is coming across as detached and cold-hearted.

At a national level, Federated Farmers says its members have to lift their game, particularly when it comes to animal identification and tracing. (Northland’s branch is calling for a full, independent inquiry about MPI’s approach to biosecurity.) Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor has instructed officials to take a tougher approach to compliance with the tracing system, NAIT. These conversations should have been had years ago.

The tougher conversations are to be had face-to-face with farmers. Yes, there needs to be a better job of selling the benefits of NAIT – that’ll help uptake. But the crucial conversations will be farmers telling MPI what they need, how best to help them and how, when the next outbreak hits – because it will – the ministry can improve its response.

Of course, just because the farmers are talking, doesn’t mean that MPI will listen.

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