Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is starting to sound conciliatory as farmers gear up for a 50-town protest this Friday.
The protest started as opposition to the Government’s feebate proposal to impose a levy on petrol-powered utes.
But it has moved beyond that and has become a general protest against the Government.
The protests on Friday involving utes and farm dogs have been organised by an Otago-Southland farmer group, Groundswell.
The group has been arguing for farmers to take a more militant stance against the Government in contrast to what they see as the too-moderate approach of Federated Farmers.
But yesterday Federated Farmers President, Andrew Hoggard, appeared to succumb to the weight of numbers backing Groundswell and came out strongly in support of the protests.
In a speech to the Feds’ National Council in Christchurch, Hoggard said that while the ute tax was a small financial burden for most farmers, it was the straw that had broken the camel’s back and had led to the protests on Friday.
“If we look across the spectrum of work that is occurring right now we see a rush of legislation and change; we see legislation that has been poorly thought out and is requiring constant work to fix aspects of it; we have longstanding workstreams, that require already stretched resources and we have new proposals coming to the fore, which will stretch those resources even more,” he said.
Hoggard listed the freshwater reforms, the RMA reforms, developing a pricing mechanism for methane emissions by 2025, and the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Act as issues that were imposing pressures on farmers.
And he said adding to that pressure was the farm labour shortage caused by Covid immigration restrictions.
“Overall, my message to the government is we need to organise the workplan better,” he said.
“We have a siloed haphazard approach right now that is causing stress and anxiety for many.”
In their publicity for the protests on Friday, Groundswell organisers say: “If you are a Farmer, a Grower or you and a Ute owner are fed up with increasing Government interference in your life and business, unworkable regulations and unjustified costs, then please join in! Bring your Tractor or Ute and a couple of dogs on Friday.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded to Hoggard’s comments yesterday, conceding that there was no doubt that the primary sector faced significant challenges.
“They include everything from how we transition in the face of climate change and how we make sure that we remove some of the depreciation of our waterways together,” she said.
“And there’s no doubt that our primary sector sits at the forefront of how we resolve those issues together.
“So I’m not denying there are big challenges for us.
“We’ve been very committed and focussed on how we can address those together.”
But she said to delay to face the challenges would be even worse.
“My view is that to delay them, to postpone or to not take action would be more damaging,” she said.
“We trade on our brand when we enter into trade negotiations, the questions that we face are very much about issues such as our contribution to climate change, the most significant of which, unfortunately, comes from food production.”
Ironically though, Groundswell is being seen as a more radical version of Federated Framers, another more extreme group is lurking in the wings.
The Agricultural Action Group is another Otago-Southland group which shares some of the same concerns as Groundswell but also includes at least one former candidate from Jami-Lee Ross’s Advance Party among its key members.
Heather Meri-Pennycook stood for the party in Southland and lists her concerns as “water standards, the UN Agenda 21, the government’s Covid response, 1080 and other toxins, gun legislation, and 5G.”
Former NZ First MP and Otago Federated Farmers President, Mark Patterson, is concerned about the impact the group is having after he attended a meeting they organised in Balclutha.
He said the meeting had conflated “valid concerns” of rural communities about current government policy with “wild conspiracy theories”.
“There were some wild conspiracy theories being peddled, regarding the United Nations’ Agenda 21, and that organisation’s leading of a shadowy global cabal dictating to our Government,” he said.
“Having worked within government, frankly, that’s nonsense, but because there’s an underlying tension founded on legitimate policy concerns currently, it could be persuasive for some, which is unhelpful.”
Groundswell is also concerned about extreme elements infiltrating its protest on Friday.
Its co-ordinator, Bryce McKenzie, in a video message on the organisation’s website, said: “We want to be sensible persuaders, not rednecks.
“Let’s be in the media for the right reasons, not the wrong reasons.”
Though many farmers complain that their representatives are not loud enough in their opposition to the Government, farmer organisations are making some progress in getting Government proposals modified.
For example, Environment Minister David Parker has tacitly conceded that the much-criticised nitrate limit on waterways is now indefinitely suspended.
David Parker was asked last Tuesday during Question Time by former Conservation Minister and Green MP, Eugenie Sage, whether the Government’s planned to set a dissolved inorganic nitrogen limit of 1 milligram per litre or lower for freshwater; “if not, why not?”
Parker’s answer was complex: “When making a recommendation on a dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) bottom line to Cabinet, I will be considering the expected effect of current policy requirements, the marginal environmental benefit of a DIN national bottom line, the marginal economic impact of such a DIN national bottom line, and whether the science behind a national bottom line of 1 milligram per litre of DIN had become clearer since May last year when we last considered the question.”
That sounded very much like a list of reasons not to impose the limit; certainly, that was the way Sage interpreted it when she asked her next question.
“For what reasons, if any, is he considering not setting a dissolved inorganic nitrogen limit,” she said.
Parker did not argue with that and instead referred her to his original answer.
The exchange demonstrates how politically sensitive many of the issues being raised by the farmers are.
Ardern acknowledged that yesterday when they said that “yes, there’s a lot of pressure on all of us.”
But there is a limit to how far a Labour Government can do in ignoring green issues.
Maybe their response to this Friday’s protests will show where that limit is.