Analysis: The M. Bovis debacle deserves more debate

What has emerged from the debate over the Mycoplasma Bovis saga is that New Zealand appears to have been let down by authorities – especially politicians and senior government bureaucrats who have mismanaged the country’s biosecurity, leaving farming in turmoil, and the taxpayer picking up most of the tab for their negligence.

Leading the charge against the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), Duncan Garner accuses the government department of being dysfunctional and ill-prepared for inevitable breaches of biosecurity like M. Bovis. He says former MPI minister Nathan Guy should resign, David Carter should apologise and, although current minister Damien O’Connor is doing OK, he “went missing for months” – see his column: Alert, alert, mad cows on loose, MPI in deep coma.

Garner says that MPI and the previous government should have been ready for such a breach: “Surely we had a plan for this chaos, should it arrive? This disease was here in 2015. So what did the National Government do? It did as little as possible.  Nothing but damn negligence and utter inaction, from what I can see. Nothing in the face of a major threat to our wealth creators, our farmers who feed the world and seriously help us pay our way… It's not as though National Party ministers and MPI hadn't been warned, in a 2015 rebuke of MPI by the auditor-general: MPI staff were generally poorly trained and had the wrong tools.”

Biosecurity New Zealand’s Roger Smith hit back, labelling Garner’s column “shallow and incorrect analysis” – see: MPI response system robust, says biosecurity head.

Smith says “I would like to reassure all New Zealanders that MPI has a very good model for managing biosecurity responses which allows us to respond swiftly and consistently to incursions.” But he adds: “We also know our response to date has, at times, not been perfect and it has been harder on individuals than it should have been.”

Writing on this “Garner-Smith bunfight”, Newsroom’s David Williams defends Garner, and says Garner “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” – see: MPI must rebuild trust.

Williams also provides details of others criticising MPI, including farmers who have been affected. For example, he says “Northland’s branch [of Federated Farmers] is calling for a full, independent inquiry about MPI’s approach to biosecurity.”

He paints a picture of an agency that is too slow, too lax, and untrusted by farmers. Williams, who is based in the South Island, says “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.”

MPI’s big problem, Williams says in another article – Zero tolerance bites for cattle farmers – is that the agency needs to rebuild trust with farmers at the same time that it has to crack down on their non-compliance with many rules.

The biggest non-compliance problem – which has been highlighted by the M. Bovis disaster – is the industry’s National Animal Identification and Tracing System (NAIT), which is meant to control stock movements and allow authorities to better deal with biosecurity outbreaks. It hasn’t worked, Williams says: “Five years of voluntary NAIT compliance hasn’t worked, with adherence as low as 30 percent in some areas. Stuff reported in December that only one $150 fine had been issued since 2012 for failing to declare the movement of an animal.”

Williams reports that “MPI is expected to consult on recommended changes to the NAIT system in the next few months.”

The new government are quite rightly pointing to the fact that the animal tracking system, NAIT, was developed and overseen by the previous National government. A very good RNZ article explains the origins of the system, and quotes new agriculture minister Damien O’Connor as being highly critical – see: How did NZ end up facing a 150,000-cow, $886m cull, and who is to blame?

Reporting on the development of M. Bovis debacle, this article says “O’Connor again criticised NAIT for the spread of the disease, and was joined by Jacinda Ardern, who said her government had inherited a ‘shamefully underfunded’ system that was an ‘abysmal failure’. The government said farmers who did not abide by the system could face penalties.”

That compliance with the animal tracking system rules hasn’t been enforced by MPI, amounts to a “system of light handed (to non-existent) regulation for farmers” according to Gordon Campbell, who complains that “taxpayers are now being expected to pick up the tab for some of the consequences of the latitude that has been extended to farmers” – see: On showing maximum love to farmers over M Bovis.

It certainly raises the question of why the taxpayer should be funding a problem in the private sector. And a Newshub-Reid Research survey shows that New Zealanders are evenly divided on this issue of “whether it's right for the taxpayer to stump up the cost of eradicating the disease” – see Tova O'Brien’s Should taxpayers fund the M bovis clean up? The results say: “Forty-four percent say it's fair, 44.5 percent say it's not fair and 12 percent don't know.”

Agriculture and biosecurity expert, Keith Woodford, says it is “legitimate” to question why the public is having to pay for this farming problem. He’s quoted by Andrea Fox in her article, Business case for cattle disease plan kept secret from public. This article also questions why MPI is keeping secret the background information on the decision to eradicate M. Bovis.

Economist Michael Reddell also questions why the public has to pay “when all the benefits will accrue to industry themselves.  It has the feel of the classic line about people being keen, when they can, to socialise losses and capitalise gains” – see: Why are we gifting so much to farmers?

According to Reddell, there’s more than a hint of electoral strategy involved: “Perhaps the government is dead keen not to alienate further the business community and ‘regional New Zealand’, but this appears to be almost wholly an industry issue, and I’m not sure that mending party political fences with elements of the business community is really a legitimate use of public money.
Perhaps there is a stronger wider public policy case to be made for this intervention?  But if so, it hasn’t been made to the public so far. Instead, they are just taking our money and giving it to the farmers, to directly benefit the bottom lines of firms in that industry.”

Keith Woodford has provided further explanation of the government decision in his article, Mycoplasma bovis: What does ‘phased eradication’ mean? But he adds that MPI “have not covered themselves in glory. All members of their response team will have been working hard within imposed limits, but the MPI system has let them down with too many layers of management and an inability to make timely operational decisions for each farm.”

Ultimately, there will need to be a change to biosecurity laws, which have been shown by this debacle to be out of date. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern explains: “We just need to make sure it is fit for purpose and every time I have a conversation I hear something else that makes me think was the Act agile enough for us to be able to deal with this infection as quickly and effectively as we could?” – see Andrea Vance’s Biosecurity legislation to be overhauled following M Bovis outbreak.

Finally, Rachel Stewart has a long-running beef with MPI, and her recent column on the debacle is worth reading – see: Ministry's cunning plan fails to stop M. bovis cattle disease. For a different take on the biggest victims, at the centre of the disaster, read her latest column: Why I love cows and you should too.

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