It certainly is an interesting time to be a farmer now, and not necessarily for all the right reasons.
The declaration from Environment Minister David Parker that regulation is his chosen path for dealing with intensive dairying is just the latest salvo from this government that principles and ideology reign supreme over co-operation and common sense.
This comes on top of the Green element of the coalition doing all it can to include agricultural animal emissions in an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), plus the uncertainty of what the Tax Working Group will also impose, never mind the potential requirements that Plan Change One Healthy Rivers will heap on us. I am not surprised to see so many farms on the market right now.
And here I was thinking the public opinion pendulum was starting to swing back to a more reasonable setting.
Some recent studies, the most recent being analysis of trends from Land and Water Aotearoa, show that the quality of our freshwater is improving in more monitored sites than is declining. Buoyed by this, and the fact I’d recently hosted an Auckland secondary school on my farm and witness the change in many of the students’ perceptions, I was feeling upbeat that the contribution that farming has been making towards environmental improvement might be starting to be recognised.
But it seems out sector will still be the whipping post for politicians and environmentalists. Never mind that some of the urban centres can’t, or don’t want to, control or reduce their own wastewater discharges, the easy targets still seem to be intensive farming - especially dairy.
What seems to have been forgotten is that farming generates 70 per cent of New Zealand’s merchandise export earnings and around 12 percent of GDP. I know tourism is now also a major player in what we earn as a country, but that sector is also experiencing some severe infrastructure restrictions that account for a fair amount of pollution and litter in our countryside.
It would be an interesting debate if this government also proposed including tourism in the ETS and started taxing airlines, etc. The proposed bed tax caused enough of an uproar.
I guess what I am trying to say is that at the end of the day any government needs to look at four baseline considerations when discussing potential policy that will affect us all as residents - environmental, social, cultural, and financial. If one or more of these is substantially lacking in any new regulation, then it is bound to be fundamentally unfair and unbalanced.
My concern is that this new government seems to be focused on one of the first three considerations but gives scant regard as to who will foot the eventual bill. A great example is the decision to ban all new oil and gas exploration, a decree announced with essentially no lead-up consultation and a move that will leave a huge fiscal hole in the Taranaki regional economy. While it may have been the right decision environmentally and maybe culturally, the financial and social cost has been swept under the carpet.
We all will have aspects of our lives and businesses that will need improvement, but blanket regulation and legislation isn’t the answer. If government and other authorities want to see change then they need to empower farmers, businesses and the wider community to work together in an integrated manner so that real time experience is tapped into to identify and solve the problem, not to be told what the problem is from Wellington or elsewhere.
As always, two-way communication is vital. It might not be easy at first and there may be some hard conversations to be had, but ultimately this is the approach that will engage and activate the rural sector.
So my message to the new government: please continue to talk to us, not at us. It is only through meaningful dialogue that solutions will be found.
Andrew McGiven - Federated Farmers Waikato President