Meeting to explain freshwater policy a real game of two halves

Craig Hickman, Elbow Deep @dairymanNZ

Last month I attended a water meeting in Ashburton hosted by David Parker, Labour’s spokesman for water and the environment. The meeting had been planned for months and would, I imagine, have attracted little interest were it not for Labour announcing their policy to tax irrigation just a few weeks earlier.

I know Labour call it a royalty on commercial water use, but as it only affects irrigators and some water bottlers I think irrigation tax is a fair summary. Many column centimetres have been written about this tax in the past month and it depresses me to see so many commentators still getting so many things wrong, but I’d like to focus on the meeting itself because it was truly a fascinating game of two halves.

Parker was on a circuit of the country to promote Labour’s plans to improve water quality and Ashburton was his latest stop. He started by taking us on a photo tour of dodgy farming practices throughout the country that were affecting water quality: beef feedlots in Hawke’s Bay with sediment traps overflowing into waterways, cows being wintered in Southland with massive pugging next to rivers, high country break feeding of deer and ‘spray and pray’ cropping practices on hill country. There was, at the insistence of Federated Farmers, one slide showing a polluted urban waterway in Auckland.

With each new slide the confused muttering in the room became more audible; “that’s not Canterbury”, “that has nothing to do with irrigation”. It was becoming increasingly clear that Parker was there to talk about one thing and the audience another.

David Parker, Labour’s spokeman for water and the environment.

He showed an excellent grasp of the issues surrounding water quality but brushed urban pollution to one side. When the picture of Coe’s Ford popped onto the screen he again showed good knowledge, conceding that the river had always disappeared underground at certain points and that irrigation was but one factor in an extremely complex system, exacerbated by three dry summers in a row.

Parker surprised me by saying that he supported National’s decision to fire the ECan board and install a commissioner, the first time I’d ever heard anyone in opposition deviate from the “death of democracy” line.

Parker’s pitch was this: regional councils have all the power at their disposal to implement and enforce nutrient management plans and to manage land use change but, with the exception of ECan, they’re not doing it and he’s pissed off about it. Labour, he said, would issue a national policy statement outlining their expectations and this would force the councils to act. It shouldn’t be necessary to do this, and ECan have proved it can be done, but other councils had dropped the ball.

He was charming, he was persuasive, he was knowledgeable and he summed up by saying that we had nothing to fear from Labour as ECan was leading the way and nothing would change.

Had a controversial new policy not just been released he may well have sewn up a few votes by that stage.

Parker then invited questions from the floor and, no surprise, the first one was about water pricing.

The mood changed immediately and the audience became “you people”, we were told the rural/urban divide was huge and it was mainly the fault of Federated Farmers for defending indefensible practices.

He conceded Labour had made a mess of the Foreshore and Seabed situation and this, combined with Brash’s Orewa speech and Tuhoe “running around with guns” had made it impossible to address water rights, but that time was finally here.

Parker expressed frustration at the wild speculation on pricing and felt pushed into a allocating a 1 to 2 cents/cumec band, totally failing to accept that releasing the policy with a price would’ve avoided any speculation at all.

Farmer after farmer stood up to speak: some like myself spoke of the cost to business and were told we were wrong, others like David Clark expressed concern at being labelled polluters and spoke eloquently about the effect on the community of losing that money. He was ignored.

Tiring of our questions Parker snapped “I’m not here to negotiate with you; if you push me the tax will be closer to 2c than 1c”.

He soon called the meeting to a close saying that neither of us was going to convince the other, he clearly thought our concerns should be saved for the consultation period.

By this point I was convinced of one thing; the tax has nothing to do with pollution. The money going to iwi and ECan would be used at their discretion as it’s not central government’s job to direct regional councils how to use their resources.

First and foremost the tax was a tool to halt Labour’s slide in the polls by grabbing the urban voter, to snatch votes back off the Green Party. With 70 per cent public support for the policy they’d be mad to back down, no matter how ineffectual it will be in cleaning up waterways.

Parker had his supporters in the room too, and the comments of one rammed home to me how much work we have to do to connect with non-farmers. “You bastards” he said, shaking with rage and pointing his finger at the crowd, “have had it your own way for far too long. You deserve everything you’ve got coming to you.”

And Parker nodded in agreement.