Why farmers are breathing a sigh of relief

Farmers are first and foremost businesspeople who like certainty - something which was in woefully short supply in this election campaign, writes Canterbury dairy farmer Craig Hickman

I imagine there was a collective sigh of relief from farmers up and down the country at about 11pm on Saturday night. I imagine this because that was my reaction, and I milk 1000 cows on the outskirts of Ashburton on an irrigated farm. The relief was tinged with shock at the loss of the Māori Party, who was the only other party in consideration for my vote, and disappointment that New Zealand First would once again hold the balance of power.

In an election campaign of misinformation, half-truths and outright lies it was often hard to separate fact from fiction. There were big audacious $11 billion fibs to sow doubt and confusion and there were lies of omission designed to pit different sectors against one another.

So why relief? Call farmers what you will, and I’ve been called many unflattering things during this election campaign, but we are first and foremost businesspeople and we like certainty - something which was in woefully short supply.

The Green Party to their credit were honest with their policies; agriculture would be phased into the emissions trading scheme, commercial use of water would be taxed, a moratorium would be placed on dairy conversions and cow numbers would be reduced over a period of time. Pollution would also be taxed, a policy I’m in favour of, but they chose to target nitrate which is very difficult to measure. No other sector is asked to pay taxes based on broad guesswork and farmers sure as hell don’t want to be the first.

There are arguments to be made for and against each of the Green policies, but each of them require a very high level of trust from the parties that will be affected. When a Green MP posts videos on Facebook telling viewers that the dairy industry is the equivalent of 90 million people pumping their untreated sewage directly into waterways, one could feel that the trust required for my support hasn’t quite been earned.

No other sector is asked to pay taxes based on broad guesswork and farmers sure as hell don’t want to be the first.

Labour’s water tax policy was the one that got all the publicity and that was no accident. It was a calculated populist move with one aim: to halt their slide in the polls and to snatch as many votes back off the Greens as possible. Had the policy simply been “we think commercial users of water should pay a royalty” it would have been a very dry argument indeed.

Much has been made of National stoking the urban rural divide with wild stories of cow slaughter, but the Labour wedge was more insidious. Irrigation was constantly conflated with pollution despite all evidence to the contrary; Canterbury accounts for something like 65 percent of all the country’s irrigation, watering 11 percent of its land area, yet only four percent of the rivers are deemed poor for swimming. In contrast Auckland irrigates about 1 percent of its land area but boasts a hefty 62 percent of rivers rated poor for swimming.

The focus was constantly on dairy farms of which about 2000 irrigate, little mention was made of the other 9000 farms that hold consent to water as they didn’t fit the polluting narrative. It worked too, I can’t recall a situation in New Zealand where people have been protesting the opposition.

Jacinda Ardern was quick to reassure urban voters they would not be charged the tax as they already paid for their water; a refrain I heard constantly on Twitter and eventually gave up arguing against. Nobody in New Zealand pays for fresh water; not the irrigator, not the water bottler and not the resident who takes a 15-minute shower, but when you receive a monthly “water bill” the lie that you do is very easy to believe.

David Parker was asked on election night if he regretted the framing of the water tax; he did not, the huge amount of publicity it drew kept water pollution at the front of voters' minds he said.

It did its job; Ardern’s ascension coupled with support for policies like the water tax drew Green and NZF voters to Labour. We won’t know until the final results are in, but I suspect the publicity also galvanised National supporters to get out and vote. No matter which way you slice it, 46 percent of the vote and a potential fourth term is an impressive feat.

But still the concern lingers. Just under half of the country voted for change and just under half voted for stability, and with Winston holding the balance of power I fear neither will get what they want.

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