Barber’s Wire: Saudi sheep farming venture a dog’s breakfast

Allan BarberIt’s hard to imagine what on earth the government was thinking when it agreed to buy off a Saudi Arabian businessman Hmood al-Ali al-Khalaf to the tune of $11 million because it hoped he would stop objecting to a Gulf States Free Trade Agreement. The official excuse is that the Labour government’s ban on live sheep exports laid New Zealand open to being sued for damages under World Trade Organisation rules which could have exceeded the amount outlaid.

There is no evidence this would have happened. In fact, if the government is remotely concerned about a near decade old ban on live sheep exports, we shouldn’t even be talking about participating in the Trans Pacific Partnership which has much greater potential to interfere with New Zealand’s sovereign right to determine its own commercial laws.

The purpose claimed for the ‘investment’ of $11 million was to establish an Agrihub for the promotion of New Zealand agriculture. According to a press release put out by Brownrigg Agriculture, the Hawke’s Bay farmer and exporter contracted to supply 900 pregnant ewes for the venture, the company offered assistance with the lambing by experienced New Zealand stockmen. This was refused.

Surely this should have been a condition of the contract, if the government was truly concerned with setting up a successful Agrihub. It shows the enormous risk associated with giving a government department decision making responsibility for a complex (John Key’s new favourite word) practical and commercial arrangement.

I imagine everybody will now be diving for cover, but the Prime Minister’s attempts to attribute ultimate responsibility for this messy saga to the Labour government back in 2007 are quite frankly laughable.

The farcical nature of the attempt to buy off Hmood al Khalaf was underlined by the Minister of Agriculture’s broadcast explanation of the 75 percent lambing death rate as being caused by sandstorms, when Brownrigg’s media release the same day blamed heavy rain and the range of illness at peak lambing.

If ever there was a justification for the government to keep its sticky fingers out of real farming ventures, this is it. I hope it has learned its lesson!

Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. He has his own blog Barber’s Meaty Issues and can be contacted by emailing him at allan@barberstrategic.co.nz.

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