Bitter divisions within farmer politics exploded into the open yesterday with the news that the Groundswell movement is declining an invitation from the Prime Minister to meet because other farmer organisations would also be at the meeting.
At issue is whether farmers should support the He Waka Heke Noa proposal to levy farmers on their Greenhouse Gas emissions – particularly methane.
The row between the farmer organisations is flowing over into the centre-right political parties, with ACT backing Groundswell.
National, however, is resolute in support of the He Waka Heke Noa process, with its agriculture spokesperson, Barbara Kuriger, saying that doing nothing is not an option.
But there are also implications for Climate Change Minister James Shaw.
There are plenty on the green side of politics, particularly Greenpeace, who oppose what they see as his indulgence of the farm sector by allowing it to develop its own emissions system to bypass the Emissions Trading Scheme.
If farmers reject the proposal, that will be a huge blow to him and his strong belief in bipartisan politics.
The row also threatens the traditional farm lobby group, Federated Farmers, with Groundswell yesterday claiming it had more members.
That pressure has caused the Feds’ President, Andrew Hoggard, to question the way his organisation has managed the issue.
“I think for me personally, it’s just more of a wake-up call for our organisation to make sure we’re telling people what we’re doing,” he told POLITIK yesterday.
“One of the things we suck at, in my opinion, is being able to clearly communicate with farmers what it is we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
At the heart of the row is the Groundswell claim that the proposed farm levy is a tax.
That line of argument seems to coincide with the involvement of the Taxpayers’ Union in the Groundswell campaign.
Their director, Jordan Williams, has confirmed to POLITIK that he was asked to help them build their website.
His imprint is also on their Facebook page with a description of the proposed GHG levy as a “farming tax.”
However, National’s agriculture spokesperson, Barbara Kuriger, is broadly supportive of He Waka Heke Noa.
“We need to make a start on this stuff, so we haven’t definitively come out and say, yes, we want this option or that option or anything like that,” she told POLITIK last night.
“We’ll look at the options as they bring them back.
“But we’re pretty supportive of the industry doing something outside of the Emissions Trading Scheme.”
That has been the consistent argument of Beef and LambNZ, Dairy NZ and the other industry bodies who support He Waka Heke Noa; that if farmers fail to reach an agreement on an alternative proposal, they will be forced into the Emissions Trading Scheme ETS), which will impose much greater costs on each farm.
“We don’t believe agriculture belongs in the ETS, and we’ve always said no tools, no tax,” said Kuriger.
That is a reference to the availability of mitigation technologies with feeds, vaccines and controversially, the genetically modified ryegrass being developed by AgriculktureNZ, which reduces methane emissions from cattle.
“There are still a few things missing like methane mitigations and things like that.
“But the industry had a chance to go away and have a process to build some potential models and talk to the farmers about that.
“We want the industry to do something; doing nothing is not an option.”
Federated Farmers though they were part of the partnership that developed He Waka Heke Noa, have yet to confirm their support for it.
“We’ve had some bottom lines right from the word go as to what we want to see the thing look like,” said Hoggard.
“Once we’ve got a final document, then we’ll know whether or not it’s going to meet our bottom lines or not.
“And if it doesn’t, then I will assume our national council and say no to it.”
That final document is expected by the end of May.
The Feds have three main conditions they want satisfied; that a split gases approach be used, that any solution incentivises GHG mitigation on farms and that the outcome maintains the competitiveness of New Zealand Farmers.
They also have concerns about how the price for gases under He Waka Heke Noa would be established
In a webinar last November, the Feds head office warned farmers that “If Feds support a He Waka Eke Noa option, then it will be effectively impossible for us to get any price removed or decreased in the future (even with a change of Government), so it is very important that we consider all details before supporting any option.”
That caution reflects the delicacy of the political situation among farmers, with the Feds clearly fearful that they risk being caught in the middle.
They are now one of Groundswell’s targets, along with the producer organisations.
And it is clear Groundswell sees this whole debate now as an opportunity to become the leading voice for farmers.
They certainly have now made it clear they have no respect for the Ke Waka Heke Noa partners. request
In a statement yesterday, Groundswell co-founder, Bryce Mckenzie, repeated his request to meet with the Prime Minister to discuss the impact of unworkable Govemment policies on farmers and growers in New Zealand.
“Groundswell NZ requested a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss these unworkable policies; the Groundswell NZ alternatives, and the failure in representation of farmers and growers by the established industry bodies.
“The Prime Minister offered to let us sit in on her meeting with the very establishment organisations that have failed to represent farmers’ concerns, ensuring they would be present to shield the PM from our criticisms of them and the Government.”
The statement has echoes of Trump-like populism, with references to the industry bodies as “failing organisations” and claims that they had stopped representing farmers to the Government but were now representing the Government to farmers.
Kuriger said Groundswell had a good point when they complained about too much Government regulation with their protest last July.
But she said it was disappointing they were now dividing the industry.
“This is a time now where the industry has had the consultation, and now it’s time to come together to get in the room and go; okay, so which option are we going to take? Which way are we going to go? How fast are we going to transition this, you know, things like that,” she said.
“And I don’t want to see this industry divide.
“We need to be united as rural industries so that we can show our urban cousins that we’re really serious about this because doing nothing is not an option.
“We’ve got things we need to solve, and we don’t need to solve them in a way that sends our country backwards economically.”
Kuriger said it would never be possible to keep 100 per cent of people happy.
“But sometimes you’ve just got to accept that there will be a need for some concessions along the way for different parties, but you should come out as a united industry, and that is the only option in my mind.”
Kuriger is a highly respected voice within farming, and her views probably represent most mainstream farmers, particularly in the North Island.
But as New Zealand saw with the protest on Parliament’s lawn, reason and rationality are not necessarily driving all grassroots politics these days.