May, 2020: Annouing the Naitonal Freshwater Environment Standard - which is now being modified. Greens co-leader, James Shaw; Environment Minister, David Parker and Primary Industries Minister, Damien O"Connor

The Government is copping a green backlash over its decision to delay implementing controls on cows grazing in mud.

Environmentalists say the move weakens the effect of the Government’s Freshwater National Environment Statement, which was designed to “make rivers swimmable”.

But there is more.

The Ministry for the Environment has not started work on a promised review of a contentious nitrogen standard for streams.

That means the status quo remains.

Environment Minister David Parker and Primary industries Minister Damien O’Connor confirmed on Tuesday that a proposed clampdown on winter grazing practices would now be delayed for a year to allow farmers to come up with their own solutions.

Parker and O’Connor chose to announce this at a DairyNZ function at Parliament, a move which further antagonised the Greens and environmental NGOs.

Green MP Eugenie Sage asked in Parliament yesterday why the announcement had been made at the function.

Because it was a convenient time to do so,” said Chris Hipkins replying on behalf of Parker.

Sage also asked if he agreed with Forest & Bird that “the government has caved to pressure from intensive farmers instead of standing firm for freshwater health, and upholding the promises they made to all New Zealanders; if not, why not?”

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Hipkins replied that the Government remained committed to addressing the issues.

“We’ve taken a pragmatic approach to accelerate progress, and that’s exactly what we’re focused on doing,” he said.

That pragmatism was endorsed by Dairy NZ.

The new Chair of the Dairy Environment Leaders, Te Aroha farmer Melissa Slattery, told the Beehive function on Tuesday that everybody wanted the same things;  clean water, low emissions, and a strong economy.

“We can’t solve the challenges ahead in isolation, and we all need to make changes to the way we live our lives, whether that be on our farms, at our places of work, or in our homes,” she said.

“Farmers are just people – and people often struggle with change.

“Particularly when there is a lot of change at once.

“Farmers are facing huge regulatory changes at the moment when it comes to emissions reductions and water quality – and I have to admit, it can feel a bit overwhelming at times.

‘To help us through this change, we need clear direction and confidence that if we invest in improvements, the goalposts won’t keep shifting.

“We also need changes to be practical behind the farm gate and have pragmatic timeframes for implementation.”

And that is more or less what Parker has agreed to.

It has been DairyNZ’s willingness to meet the Government halfway that has seen the Government willing to modify proposals like the winter grazing rules.

But environmental NGOs are not impressed with the end result.

The animal welfare group SAFE said cows and their calves needed the Government to act for them now, “not in 2022.”.

Greenpeace said the delay showed “that Ardern’s Government was more fearful of stepping on the dairy industry’s toes than acting on the climate crisis or freshwater pollution.

“It feels like this government is owned by the dairy industry,” said  Greenpeace Senior Campaigner Steve Abel.

There was one environmentalist, Angus Robson, who supported Parker’s move on winter grazing rules.

In 2019 Robson was a leading campaigner against winter grazing practices in Southland and was trapped in a farmhouse by a group of farmers after he tried to take pictures of cows in deep mud.

He told “the Muster” radio show yesterday that he thought the rules had needed tweaking.

“I think it’s been known for a long time that they needed tweaking, and there was a lot of good input put in before they are even announced that was mostly ignored or glossed over and so what we ended up with wasn’t ideal,” he said.

“So, yes, I understand why they need another look at this.” And in fact,  what was even put up shouldn’t have even been put up.

But Parker is likely to further antagonise his green critics when they realise he is now also delaying the review of dissolved nitrogen limits.

The limits which Dairy NZ said Dairy NZ said could see total milk production by 2050 fall by 24 per cent and all national exports by 5.2 per cent or $8.1 billion was a key part of his Freshwater National Policy Standard designed to clean up waterways polluted with nitrates from dairying.

There was always disagreement inside Parkers’ Scientific and Technical Advisory Group (STAG)  about what he limit should be.

And so Parker said he would refer it to officials, and they would report back in 12 months.

That was in May last year, but Parker told POLITIK yesterday that work had yet to begin.

Instead, the Ministry for the Environment, who administer the Freshwater Policy Standard, will rely on the measurement of periphyton (or slime) in a stream. But that occurs only in gravel bottomed waterways which are mainly in the South Island.

The dissolved nitrogen measure is more relevant for the North Island, where rivers, streams and even farm drainage channels all have mud bottoms.

Parker’s approach would seem to vindicate those who believe this second term Ardern Government has come back to Parliament more cautious and conservative than it was during its first term.

One Minister suggested to POLITIK this week that whereas in the last term, the Government could push policies out to more radical limits and then rely on NZ First or the Greens to pull them back, they now have to realise that what they propose will be what they are likely to end up with.

That is imposing a new pragmatism and caution on the Cabinet. And because the Greens continually rule out ever doing a deal with National, they have limited leverage over the Government.

The events of this week have demonstrated that.