Opinion: Simon Wilson: Farm tractors, Ponsonby lattes and the true gulf between us

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The trouble with protests, of all kinds, is you never know who’s going to turn up. The Howl of a Protest tractor rally in Auckland last Friday was gatecrashed by Voices for Freedom.

“Toot for Freedom” proclaimed their placards.

The group stands for “the freedom for New Zealanders to choose what is right”, although that particular freedom is not actually under threat. Its core purpose to date has been to oppose Covid measures – it’s anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine – and it functions as a magnet for conspiracy theorists of all stripes.

Just a guess, but I’d be surprised if most farmers in the Howl protests had much time for them at all.

What were the protests really about? Pukekohe spokesfarmer Scott Bright told NewstalkZB the previous evening that “unworkable regulations are killing farmers”. That did seem a touch hyperbolic, in a year when beef and lamb prices are strong and Fonterra says there will be another near-record dairy payout.

But yes, there are the new water proposals, and the Significant Natural Area regulations, which prescribe better care for wetlands, and constraints on winter feeding practices. Also the Clean Car Standard and feebate scheme, both designed to encourage us all to buy less-polluting vehicles. National calls the feebate a “ute tax”.

“Demand the debate!” it says, although all these issues are already being intensely debated.

Perhaps, said Kim Hill on RNZ the next day, farmers were expressing more of an “inchoate rage”. She wasn’t dismissing the rage. It’s real and, as many commentators have noted, it should be listened to.

I agree with that. I also think it’s mischievous to say it isn’t being listened to. In my experience, urban New Zealanders feel a real connection to the countryside and like to think there are many points of empathy.

“No farmers, no food” was a popular slogan on Friday, and it’s true. We know it and we appreciate what it means: farming is at the heart of our economy and our wellbeing.

We also know that it’s not, fundamentally, about our own food. All those sheep in the paddocks: 95 per cent of their meat is destined for export.

And we know about the impact of industrial-scale farming, especially dairy farming in places that should never see a cow. Small comfort to family farms already doing their bit for waterways and wetlands and indigenous stands of bush, I know, but 95-99 per cent of our waterways are now polluted in excess of the guidelines.

In urban areas, that’s a result of decades of underinvestment in water infrastructure, and we have to own it. In rural areas, the main cause is nitrates from farming. They have to own that too.

You could say the National Party also gatecrashed the Howl protest. The organisers said they wanted it to be non-aligned but party leader Judith Collins mobilised almost her entire caucus to attend the tractor rallies around the country.

In Blenheim, Collins rode into town in a ute towing a digger. As a very large tractor drove past, she declared: “I’d like to see them try to make an electric version of that.”

Which is beyond comprehension. Of course, they’ll make an e-version of that.

In the coming decades every kind of vehicle and machine will be powered by clean, renewable fuels. True for ships, true for aeroplanes, true for the new tugboat expected soon by Ports of Auckland. If you can do it for all them, who seriously thinks it won’t happen with tractors?

Honestly, the way National is carrying on, you’d think it had no greater ambition than to replace NZ First as the natural party of the grumpily disconnected.

Meanwhile, a group called He Waka Eke Noa gets on with its work. This is a “primary sector climate action partnership” set up by leading rural sector organisations, along with iwi and the ministries of primary industries and the environment.

“He Waka Eke Noa is a credible five-year work plan, developed in partnership with other sector groups, that includes clear and measurable actions, outcomes and timeframes that will facilitate and support action across a number of environmental improvements such as climate change, water quality and biodiversity.”

That’s not weaselly Government speak. It’s Tim Mackle, chief executive of DairyNZ.

“By working with the Government, we now have the best opportunity to develop a framework that is practical and simple for farmers, rewards positive change and supports the sector to reduce emissions and maintain or increase sequestration.”

And that’s Andrew Morrison, chairman of Beef and Lamb NZ.

The fact is, debates about a better future for farming are well under way, farm groups are right in the middle of them and it’s not all going the way the Government might have hoped.

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.

Farmers, surely, understand how enormous that is.

But still, the tractor protest raised a couple of really big issues. One is about whether city folk are going to pull their own weight, and the other concerns leadership in the rural sector.

Westland mayor Bruce Smith told farmers on Friday the feebate was “taking your bloody money and giving it to a latte-drinking person sitting in Ponsonby”.

Given there’s a high chance the denizens of Ponsonby cafes drove there in an SUV or a double-cab ute, that’s not really true. The feebate is definitely aimed at them.

But are city folk even listening? Our single most important contribution to greenhouse gas emissions comes from transport. If we want farmers to continue improving their effluent management, are we going to match that by reducing our dependency on cars?

It’s true there’s a big divide in this country now, but it’s not between town and country. It’s between those who believe we have a climate crisis that requires us to change how we live, and those who don’t.

And whether you have an urban or a rural address says absolutely nothing about which side you might be on.

In the rural sector as in the cities, there’s an old guard often opposed to change. But there are others, farmers and many more, who stand constructively in the forefront of climate action.

Which takes us to the issue of leadership.

The National Party has links to both sides of the climate debate, but in the rural sector it is often closely aligned to the most prominent voice of the old guard, Federated Farmers’ Andrew Hoggard.

“Why are you making it harder?” one farmer said to a TV reporter on Friday.

The short answer is, because it is harder. We’ve delayed for years, listening far too much to those opposed to climate action, so now there is more to do and less time to do it in.

It’s reprehensible beyond measure than some politicians and sector leaders don’t help their followers understand this.

Westport was hit by shock floods on Friday. Over the weekend, the storm devastated several more towns in the middle and upper South Island and it bashed up Wellington too. Parts of North America were trapped in a heat dome. In Europe, rampaging water killed hundreds.

“Floods on a biblical scale” said the TV news.

He waka eke noa: we’re all in this together.

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