The chief executive of Federated Farmers during one of the most turbulent eras in New Zealand agriculture has died.
Friends and former work colleagues of Rob McLagan joined family members in-person or on a live-stream for his funeral services at Old St Paul’s in Wellington on April 8. Rob died on 26 March just short of his 82nd birthday.
Rob was at the helm of Feds from 1979 until 1993, and thus during the ‘Rogernomics’ era, the removal of farmer Supplementary Minimum Prices (SMPs) and the opening up of agriculture – and the wider New Zealand economy – to the tariff and subsidy-free policies that we have continued to pursue since.
Current Federated Farmers national president Andrew Hoggard said there was no question around Rob’s commitment to the Federation and all farmers.
“His tenure was long and through the troubled times of the 1980s reforms. He is remembered with the utmost respect,” Andrew said.
The government provided various subsidies to farmers during the 1970s to offset the government’s policy of maintaining a high currency exchange rate and the high prices farmers paid for materials as a result of import licensing and trade protection policies. By the early 1980s government support for agricultural was equivalent to 30 percent of total farm output.
Federated Farmers recognised that SMPs and other subsidies had to go so that the government could focus on bringing down inflation, sort out messy wage bargaining arrangements and argue to the rest of the world that subsidies and other forms of protectionism were ultimately destructive. But the new free market, no-subsidy era was a revenue shock for farm businesses, some of which went to the wall.
Owen Symmans, who served in a variety of roles at Federated Farmers and ultimately as deputy CEO to Rob McLagan, recalls the “very challenging times”.
“Rob was a man of principle and a very intelligent person; he was able to put the case for change succinctly. He spent a lot of time in draughty rural halls talking to farmers about the opportunities for agriculture that would come from a more open and more competitive economy.
“He worked very effectively with the Feds presidents of that time [John Kneebone (1974—1977), Allan Wright (1977—1981), Rob Storey (1981—1984), Peter Elworthy (1984—1987), Brian Chamberlin (1987—1990), Owen Jennings (1990—1993)],” Owen said.
Another very hot topic during Rob’s era was the so-called ‘Wool Debate’, a proposal that the Wool Board compulsorily acquire farmers’ wool clip and market and sell it on behalf. The idea was ultimately rejected.
Not only were farmers themselves on either side of the question, “there was very, very fierce opposition between Federated Farmers and the Meat and Wool Boards electoral colleges and so on,” Owen said.
“There were all sorts of groups and factions. Rob was someone who could get to grips with the key issues quickly. He was an honest guy and someone who got along with people but he was also firm and articulate in terms of how he presented himself.
“I think he very effectively steered the Federation through those sorts of debates, and maintained his own personal credibility.”
Rob’s daughter Jann Freitas said her father was born and raised in the Hawke’s Bay, where his father was a shepherd on some large farms.
Rob’s family eventually moved onto their own small acreage near Havelock North “and it was a really important, formative time for Dad, it shaped a lot of his ideas and character,” Jann said. He’d go out rabbit hunting with his brothers and dog and enjoyed all that the rural setting offered.
At Canterbury University he majored in English, history and economics, then did teacher training, and a year of law and politics at Victoria. He was a teacher for about 18 months.
It was through his future wife Julie (nee Lloyd) that Rob’s teaching career morphed into agriculture leadership. Then Feds CEO John Pryde was going overseas on a scholarship and advertised for a live-in companion for his wife while he was away for six months which Julie answered.
“Mum and Dad got to know the Prydes well and about 18 months after they’d moved to Palmerston North to begin their teaching careers, John let Dad know about a position at Federated Farmers heading up the Farm Cadet Scheme.”
Rob started with Feds in 1965 and progressed to CEO.
When he left the Federation, Rob was a teacher at Whitireia Polytechnic for a year and then became director general of the International Business Council Ltd.
From there he became chief executive of the Forest Owners Association for eight years between 1997 and 2005. Current FOA chief executive David Rhodes was Rob was widely respected for both his advocacy and for his style.
“Rob placed a heavy emphasis on building and maintaining relationships and thus always had an open door ready for him when he wanted to talk.”
“In all his dealings with a wide range of folks from landowners to officials and government he invariably elicited the same description – a true gentleman.”
Before he retired, Rob fitted in a year with MOTU economic and public policy research as acting director.
Rob also served terms on three Government Boards. He chaired Animal Control Products and served on the Boards of NIWA and Vehicle Testing New Zealand initiating important, lasting changes within each organisation.
He and Julie initially had a small acreage at Pauatahanui, where they had angora goats, sheep, cattle, donkeys and pigs. Rob enjoyed nothing more than using his hands, building fences, stables, goat and equipment sheds. He had a special interest in forestry, and increasing their acreage over the years allowed Rob to plant and tend stands of Tasmanian Blackwood and a variety of Eucalypts. Later they moved to a bigger home near that same picturesque Wellington inlet, running a hospitality business and hosting weddings. Jann said the golf gear Federated Farmers had given Rob at his retirement got regular use when he and Julie weren’t travelling overseas.
Rob is survived by Julie, his children Jann, Anthony and Nicki and six granddaughters.