OPINION:

It’s nearly a week since the “Howl of a Protest” took place throughout the country, and we’re still talking about the rural revolt. What are the farmers’ concerns? Are they legitimate? Has the rural-urban divide has become too deep, and will any of this have an impact on politics in Wellington?

What's behind the rural revolt?

One of the best pieces on what’s behind the rural revolt is today’s article by Laura Walters: How real is the rural-urban divide?. She argues division is being stoked between farm and town, including by the media and those who wish to explain the protests as farmers being out of touch. Instead, she paints a picture of farmers who are on board with environmental issues but have problems with a Government that they believe isn’t listening.

Walters reports Federated Farmers national president Andrew Hoggard saying: “Everyone agrees with the big picture direction, but these policies, regulations and legislation are coming out in random orders. It’s like there’s not a work plan behind it.” And given that his own organisation wasn’t behind the protests, but instead focused on behind-doors talks in Wellington, Hoggard concedes: “Maybe we’ve just been a little too polite. Maybe we need to be blunter.”

Yesterday, Canterbury farmer Craig Hickman gave a good explanation for the protests in his opinion piece, This might have been our first successful farmer protest.

He starts out by explaining his aversion to such protests: “I’ve never made a secret of the fact I’m no fan of farmer protests; there had never been a successful one in my living memory and there has been a tendency recently for them to backfire and paint farmers in a bad light, usually as ignorant racist misogynists.” But last week was different, as “the sheer volume of frustrated and disillusioned farmers drowned out the minority of fringe idiots, turning them into an irrelevant sideshow.”

Here’s his summary of farmer feeling: “The common theme was that the pace and change of Government reform has been overwhelming and is taking its toll. A relentless tidal wave of change that often seems to occur with little consultation and without any clue as to how they will be practically implemented, and no comprehension of the flow-on effects they will have. It was a collective outpouring of anger at being constantly painted as convenient villains for political gain.”

Farmer complaints

Groundswell New Zealand, who organised the protests, has published a list of seven concerns, including policies on freshwater management, the “ute tax”, the lack of overseas workers, changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme, the Significant Natural Areas programme, new rules about indigenous biodiversity, and the high country land reforms. This is explored in depth by Georgia Forrester in her article: What are Aotearoa’s farmers actually protesting about this Friday?.

Farmer Shelley Krieger has usefully outlined Why farmers protested in NZ towns and cities. She explains that some of the more prominent issues aren’t actually so central to concerns: “The ute tax was just an add-on. It was new legislation that came out after the protest had already been organised.”

For Krieger, the Significant Natural Areas rules are a particular concern: “These are areas of people’s farmland or lifestyle blocks that the Government is getting the councils to survey. This is native blocks of land that have wild flora and wild animals that pass through it. Once parts of land are classified as an SNA you lose your rights to that land, cannot farm it or build on it. You have to fence it off at your own cost and still pay the rates on it but you can no longer use it. In some instances it is 80-90 per cent of people’s land.”

For a deeper exploration of this, see yesterday’s article by George Driver: What are SNAs and why are farmers protesting them?.

Looking at the complaints of farmers, Herald political editor Claire Trevett writes: “The ute tax came to be seen as the main thrust of the protest. But for the farmers at least, it was not about the ute tax. The ute tax was simply the salt being rubbed into the wound. It would not have escaped them that the Prime Minister said Cabinet considered exempting farm and work utes from the fee, but decided it was too complicated. Farmers will not have the luxury of opting out of Government regulations because they are too complicated. And that is why the farmers protested. The protest was the rural sector making it clear they felt besieged by the pace and scale of Government reforms” – see: Dismiss protesting farmers as rednecks at your peril, Prime Minister (paywalled).

Trevett explains that farmers aren’t opposed to the Government’s land reform and environmental goals, but rather, some of the details and process: “Farmers have accepted the need for some reform, and have worked with the Government on it. But farmers are caught up in almost all of the various streams of reform on the environment and climate change. They will be hit by moves to reduce transport emissions, pricing on agricultural emissions, higher environmental standards on water, and protection of sensitive land. No matter how well signalled much of it has been, it is now all hitting at once. It is hitting at the same time as other reforms in workplace relations, immigration, the Resource Management Act and local government, all of which also impact on farmers.”

The Herald also ran an editorial explaining that farmers feel they are having to carry too much of the environmental reform effort, while others face fewer sacrifices: “Most of the protesters – likely to number thousands – will be farmers, coming in force to town because they’re fed up with being targeted for spiralling environmental compliance costs and taxes – and as they see it, doing the heavy lifting for New Zealand’s climate change response… They feel dumped on as easy targets and an unappreciated minority” – see: All is not well down on the farm as city people will find out today (paywalled).

Writing in the Herald on Sunday, columnist Kerre McIvor also explained the long list of farmer complaints – from the “ute tax” through to a feeling that the Government is prioritising other voters in its spending decisions: “It’s the Ashburton Bridge being out of commission with no plans to build a better, safer link to the rest of the South Island, when $785 million has been announced for the Boomers’ Bike Bridge to Birkenhead” – see: Farmers are riled up over everything – and they’ve got a point (paywalled).

Environmentalist rebuttals

There has been some strong pushback against the farmer protests, mostly from those advocating that more needs to be done for the environment, and farmers need to accept the reality of the urgency the country faces on issues like climate change and water reform.

Broadcaster Jack Tame challenged what he sees as farmers being ungrateful for the special treatment they get, given that they are protesting about the lack of Government support: “did those protesting farmers feel the same way when their industry received the best part of a billion dollars in support for mycoplasma bovis? Did they take to the streets to protest hundreds of millions of dollars they received in irrigation subsidies? Did protesters turn out in anger at drought relief packages, or flood relief, or the Covid-19 wage support? If the agriculture sector is concerned about special treatment, just wait until it hears about the Emissions Trading Scheme” – see: Protesting farmers are hypocrites – but so am I.

He concludes: “the sector has been well-supported for a very long time. I don’t think a few thousand extra dollars for a ute and some environmental compliance expenses are going to be so devastating that they fundamentally threaten farming communities’ way of life.”

Similarly, the Herald’s Simon Wilson points out that farmers are actually doing very well “when beef and lamb prices are strong and Fonterra says there will be another near-record dairy payout” – see: Farm tractors, Ponsonby lattes and the true gulf between us (paywalled).

He argues the Government is going very easy on farmers: “Water reforms have been amended and so have the plans for wetlands. Targets for biogenic methane, aka the belching of ruminant animals, are much softer than they are for carbon emissions. It does rather seem both the Government and the Climate Change Commission have decided the rural sector can’t be asked to carry the main weight of our environmental goals.”

For Wilson, the farmer revolt is simply down to the National Party irresponsibly fostering backward attitudes in the rural communities. Because this has created resistance to change for so long, the Government now has to move more quickly on environmental issues.

Newsroom political journalist Marc Daalder makes some similar arguments, saying that in terms of climate change what the Government is asking of farmers is “no different from the sacrifices that everyone will have to make to decarbonise” – see: Feebate won’t bankrupt farmers, but climate change might. In fact, compared to urban dwellers, Daalder says “farmers, whose footprint is partly made up of biogenic methane from livestock, face a more lenient target.”

And in today’s Otago Daily Times, two environmentalists take issue with the protests in Dunedin, suggesting protesting farmers aren’t sufficiently concerned with climate change – see Mark McGuire’s Climate change denial shocks and Bruce Mahalskiis’ Call to calm rhetoric in face of common climate threat.

For a more sympathetic environmental critique of farmers, see Philip McKibbin’s opinion piece, New Zealand farmers’ demands are unrealistic – but they are suffering and deserve support. In this he agrees that the Government should be doing much more for farmers to help them transition away from the production of dairy and meat.

Danger for the Labour Government

Writing in Stuff newspapers today, centre-right political commentator Ben Thomas asks how much impact the protests will have on the Labour Government: “The demonstrations, in themselves, will not cause the Beehive undue worry. The makeup of the protests (however well attended) suggested few disgruntled Labour voters. And the question of how the organisers, after a logistically impressive first effort, can maintain momentum remains up in the air” – see: Will a winter of discontent prove glorious summer for Judith Collins?. But Thomas concludes that other Government reforms might also start to bite.

Other commentators believe Labour have a lot to lose if they ignore the messages from the protests. In Claire Trevett’s column (cited above), she says that although Labour might hope that the public see the farmers as cranks, this isn’t necessarily happening. What’s more, the farmers might just be the first part of society to start revolting against the Government’s bigger reforms: “Labour has stood accused of failing to deliver in some policy areas, most notably housing and transport. But it is driving ahead with major reforms programmes in almost every sphere of government – and local government. That is now starting to have a cumulative effect. The farmers are simply the first to break.”

Similarly, Kerre McIvor suggests Labour would be “very foolish” to ignore these protests, and she draws a comparison with the “nanny state” messages, especially over the “shower regulations” that helped bring to an end Helen Clark’s government.

For a similar argument in more detail, see Karl du Fresne’s prediction of a provincial backlash where at the next election Labour loses the blue seats it won when the red-tide swept through at last year’s contest: An early prediction for 2023.

The Otago Daily Times’ Mike Houlahan also says Labour should be very concerned about the farmer protests: “the party would be wise not to ignore these rumblings of discontent. The mood of unity engendered by the ‘team of five million’ was never going to endure, but phenomena like Groundswell chip away at the carefully nurtured popularity of the Prime Minister, and given there are two years before the next election that offers ample time for Labour’s regional party vote to be erode” – see: Labour cannot afford to ignore rural concerns.

Houlahan points to a dangerous tendency of Government ministers to be dismissive of rural concerns, which was epitomised by Climate Change Minister James Shaw dismissing the Groundswell protester organisers as “a group of Pākehā farmers from down south who have always pushed back against the idea that they should observe any kind of regulation about what they can do to protect the environmental conditions on their land”. Houlahan suggests that this comment has only helped drive rural concerns about the orientation of the Beehive, and he argues that Labour can’t afford to be as flippant as Shaw.

The Herald’s David Fisher has also reported on the protests, arguing that Shaw’s words against the protesters have “deepened the divide” between farmers and the Government – see: Howl of a Protest as town and country talk past each other (paywalled). He also argues that Labour isn’t persuading these rural voters about its reforms: “What it signals, though, is that The Great Communicator – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – really needs to work on her communication, or have her Cabinet do so.”

And for another example of how Labour’s dismissive attitude to farmers could alienate rural votes – see the rather patronising blog post by party activist Greg Presland on the pro-Government blog The Standard: Mother Nature gives Groundswell NZ the middle finger. In this, he portrays the recent protest as just a “grumpy” National Party attempt to “disrupt” the country, saying that the farmers just “need to get over it”.

So, what happens next? Officially, the Groundswell protest organisers have given the Government a month to respond to their demands. After that, more protest action is planned. For a useful report on what this might involve, it’s worth reading a media report from one of the early organisational meetings – see Natasha Holland’s Is anyone actually listening to the farmers?.

In this, other protest actions are discussed: “some farmers may boycott rates and or not apply for resource consents”. A mention is made of the 1978 “Bloody Friday”, “when farmers, in protest, ran 1300 ewes down Dee St, Invercargill, before slaughtering them on a Victoria Ave section.”

Finally, for some poetry about the politics of the apparently growing urban-rural divide, see Victor Billot’s An ode for the farmers’ protest.

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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