17 May 2018

Farm debt bill passes first reading

10:48 am on 17 May 2018

A member's bill nearly 20 years in the making has passed its first reading at Parliament, and it has come about in quite an unusual fashion.

Winston Peters.

Winston Peters has kick-started a member's bill from pre-drafting to select committee. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

In what appeared to be an off-hand or defensive comment made by the New Zealand First leader last week, Winston Peters has kick-started a member's bill from pre-drafting to select committee.

It happened as his government faced questioning from the Opposition on its handling of the Mycoplasma bovis cattle disease outbreak.

Last Thursday, Mr Peters chimed in mid-Parliamentary debate to flag a bill not yet drafted.

"Could I ask the minister as to whether the government would consider the possibility of a Farm Debt Mediation Bill, something which the Labour Party and New Zealand First have supported in the past, but the National Party opposed."

The bill was then introduced by a New Zealand First MP mid-Question Time on Tuesday - an unorthodox approach - and didn't face any opposition.

National Party's Shadow Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee advocated for it.

Mr Brownlee stood up and successfully convinced Speaker Trevor Mallard this could help the thousands of people in farming families likely to face financial hardship because of the Mycoplasma bovis issue.

"The bill that is being proposed by Darroch Ball could well see those farmers see a little bit more light on the day than they perhaps are at the moment, it therefore is appropriate."

Mr Mallard said he was convinced of the urgency of the situation.

The bill was hurriedly drawn up.

A Farm Debt Mediation Bill was first read in 1999 by New Zealand First MP Doug Woolerton.

A similar bill was attempted by the now-Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor in 2013 but National voted it down.

In 2015, New Zealand First MP Ron Mark put his version of it in the Member's Ballot - but his was never drawn.

Now, it's been suggested, drawn up, introduced, passed unanimously and sent to select committee - all in less than a week.

It happened so fast New Zealand First couldn't decide who's name to put to it.

They had MP Darroch Ball introduce it, but his colleague Mark Patterson opened last night's debate.

"This bill provides some protection, helping to halt predatory and unsavoury lending, forced receiverships and making money lenders accountable.

"I note with interest that Australia has recently enacted similar legislation."

Effectively, the bill puts a mediation step in place, before a receiver is appointed by a bank to a farmer in great debt.

The mediator's job is to listen to both sides and attempt to come up with a path forward for both parties.

It bides a farmer some time, and the possibility of a lifeline.

Mr Patterson's bill would also remove the current cap on compensation for all lenders, under the Banking Ombudsman Scheme.

"While the ombudsman scheme and codes that operate are good, there is an inadequate compensation cap of just $200,000- this is something Federated Farmers has highlighted and New Zealand First agrees with.

"That is why section 45 also removes the compensation cap to make compensation open-ended as it ought to be."

National's made it clear though its support comes with a hook - it wants a complete rework of aspects of the bill at select committee.