Judith Collins on the campaign trail

Even National MPs were yesterday scrambling to get to grips with their Leader’s sudden new interpretation of the party’s environment policy.

Judith Collins congratulated the party’s agriculture spokesperson, David Bennett, on Tuesday night when he told a Facebook Live audience that the Government’s National Freshwater Policy statement would be “gone by lunchtime” if National got into power.

Environment Minister David Parker saw this as evidence that National under Collins was beginning to look more like President Trump’s Republican Party.

But Bennet’s statement ignored a widespread consensus within the rural sector that engagement with the Government over freshwater policy was preferable to a standoff.

That understanding appears to have influenced a formal press statement from National issued yesterday afternoon which rolled back some of the talk from the night before.

This time the statement included the Environment spokesperson, Scott Simpson, who seems unlikely to have been consulted on the announcement on Tuesday night.

The new statement read: “National will repeal or review the nine regulations announced on August 5. Instead, National will work with farmers and environmental stakeholders to put in place alternatives that are practical, science-based, and achievable.”

But it went on to claim that: “While the country was focused on the worst economic downturn in 160 years, David Parker was busy rushing through new rules that will enforce impractical restrictions on farmers with no consideration for regional variances.”

This is a reference to the publication on August 3, of the National Environmental Standard for freshwater.

But the issues National were complaining about were all well signalled.

Most of the regulations relating to stock on farms were contained within a draft National Environmental Standard on Freshwater which was published in September last year and then debated at farmer meetings up and down the country.

A new requirement for mandatory farm freshwater plans was included in the Resource Management Amendment Bill and debated in Parliament on June 24.

National voted against the legislation that contained this back (and a host of other measures)in June, but its opposition was low key.

“Farmers are aware that they are going to need to do more in this aspect,” said the party’s former Agriculture Minister and spokesperson, Nathan Guy.

 “But my challenge back to the Minister and the Government is that what farmers don’t want to see is more duplication and bureaucracy, because there are a lot of farm plans already in existence, with regional councils, Fonterra, and Beef and Lamb working on their ones.”

The influence of Simpson, who chairs National’s Blue-Green environmental group, was evident in yesterday’s press statement.

“National recognises the need for a sustainable approach and encourages the constant improvement of our waterways,” it said.

“We want to build on the existing structures around freshwater, while many of the Government’s freshwater proposals will have perverse effects on our primary sector and the wider economy.”

“It comes down to the sensible application of necessary regulations. There will be other regulations that will need to be adjusted as we move forward. “

“We’ve also amended the definition for pugging to provide more clarity.

“Discrete areas around fixed water troughs and gateways have now been exempted.

“The regulations on pugging depths around fixed water troughs and gateways weren’t practical, so we have made some adjustments to make them more realistic.

“It has become apparent that some of the regulations within the Freshwater standards – including ones around winter grazing – need to be adjusted, so we’ve done that,” he said.

He appeared to be conciliatory.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor yesterday announced some changes to the regulations — due to come in on September 3.

But in the Facebook live discussion on Tuesday night, the party’s agriculture spokesperson, David Bennett, saw a wider conspiracy at work.

They’ve been very cunning when they did these ten rules because they’ve picked a sort of a region on each rule,” he said.

“So, eight out of the ten rules wouldn’t affect one region.

“But then the two that really do affect that region, and in another region, another two really affect that.

“So they’ve divided the regions and the farmers in the way that they’ve put it together and we just need to stand up and say no to those regulations.”

Leader Judith Collins was happy to buy into the conspiracy.

“Why would we punish the best farmers in the world?” she said.

“Because some bureaucrat based in Wellington thinks it’s a really good idea to interfere in people’s businesses.

“I’m actually so over people bossing everyone else around.

“So I think we should boss out those regulations.”

By yesterday afternoon “boss out” had changed to “review”.

What all this points to is what appears to be an ad hoc approach to policy within National being driven by Collins’ more right-wing instincts, particularly on environmental matters.

She is not a member of the Blue Greens and led the sceptics within the caucus about Todd Muller’s bipartisan support for the Zero Carbon Bill.

This subtle division within National has obviously not been lost on Environment Minister David Parker.

“She (Collins)  thinks she would know better than the prior leaders IBridges and Muller) who’ve studiously stayed away from this because they know that the population is with us and that we need much better water quality policy in New Zealand,” he said.

“And what will be gone by lunchtime if the other party were to be elected would be rivers that are clean enough to swim in.

“They prefer a license to pollute.

“So we’ve got an accident-prone leader on the other side who’s plunging in the polls, and she’s judged it wrong again.”

Parker sees something more sinister on Collins’ leadership of National.

“I think New Zealanders essentially get the point,” he said.

“The equivalent of the Republican Party, on the same part of the spectrum in New Zealand, is, actually, National, and Judith Collins displays many of the temperaments that are criticised over there, and I don’t think New Zealanders will want a bar of it.”

In fact, Collins is more complicated than that; in many policy areas she is much closer to the centre than the Republicans, but there have always been question marks about her commitment to environmentalism.

She has questioned the cost of trying to control emissions.

“The likely impacts of climate change are being hugely overstated by the media and political left,” she said last year.

She accused Fonterra of “cosying” up to the Government last year after it backed .the draft Freshwater Policy Standard and Environmental Standard. Those are the standards she now says will be gone by lunchtime.

And though she has offered in-principle support to Judge Tony Randerson’s proposals to split the Resource Management Act in two, that’s not what she tells rural audiences.

“We’ve got to get rid of the RMA; it’s the biggest handbrake on the New Zealand economy, and it’s been like that for the past 30 years,” she said in Te Awamutu a fortnight ago.

“It’s just stopping anything happening, aren’t you sick of being told what to do on your own land?

“It’s got to the stage now where there is all the responsibility of owning land and none of the fun.”

This sort of rhetoric strikes a chord with National’s rural base, but what worries party officials is that election gains will be made in the centre of the political spectrum.

Getting rid of environmental standards will not help that quest.

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