Bruce Wills: Labour's farm policy dog whistle politics

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Anti-irrigation stance makes little sense in package of ideas that takes one step forward and giant leap back.

According to Labour Party finance spokesperson David Parker, farmers can look forward to resource rentals targeting farms and a capital gains tax. Photo / Sarah Ivey
According to Labour Party finance spokesperson David Parker, farmers can look forward to resource rentals targeting farms and a capital gains tax. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Labour's Shadow Minister of Finance David Parker looked the part in delivering his party's monetary policy. I was impressed and it lasted until Mr Parker's sequel, which read like Labour was targeting farmers as if we are ducks.

A recent jaundiced attack upon irrigation has me questioning if the party gets it. This speech reads as an electoral game plan designed to demonise a minority of the population while amplifying prejudices and preconceptions about what we do.

Labour's political calculus is cynical because "farming equals bad water" is dog-whistle politics. Something I honestly thought we'd moved beyond when Labour leader David Cunliffe said, in more agricultural parlance, that farmers are good guys.

Labour's anti-irrigation stance is a flip-flop from when Jim Anderton was Agriculture Minister. It also contradicts Labour's desire to enact the world's most repressive emissions trading scheme.

Winding up the Crown irrigation company not only flies in the face of regional economic development but regional climate adaptation. Are memories so short that we have forgotten adaptation was a key criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

According to the panel, Hawkes Bay can expect double or even triple the time spent in drought by 2040. Adaptation means new pastures and technologies, but fundamentally, it means storing rainwater. Residents in towns and cities do not wait for rain before taking a shower.

While water is vital to farming, without stored water some of our rivers increasingly will run lower and warmer. This is a consequence of less rainfall in a changing climate. It will also impact on farming and the environment equally.

The most distressing thing about dog-whistle politics is that it denies that farmers live where we farm.

"It denies that we drink water and denies that our families swim and fish too."
Federated Farmers President Bruce Wills

It is a naked attempt to make farmers a breed apart. It is unreconstructed class warfare.

One thing we agree with Mr Parker on is his speech title, "You can have both ...". Farming and the environment are flipsides of the same coin, so are we perfect? Far from it. Does intensive agriculture have an impact on the environment? Of course it does. Do our growing cities impact on the environment? Of course they do.

Farming needs to do better and we are putting huge resources and effort into reducing the footprint of our most important export industry. This takes money but it also takes time, yet we can point to marked improvements from Lake Rotorua to Otago's Shag River.

Last year, the Ministry for the Environment's river condition indicator said that 90 per cent of the sites tested were stable or improving. You need a clean and healthy environment to farm successfully, so making innovations like water storage more difficult simply isn't going to help.

A denial of water in concert with an emissions trading scheme seems just the start. If I can surmise Labour's economic strategy from this speech, it seems to tax agriculture into the sunset hoping that something, anything, will take its place. That's an unprecedented gamble.

According to Mr Parker, we can also look forward to resource rentals targeting farms and a capital gains tax too, which pretty much puts the Sword of Damocles over our head and the 138,000 jobs we support. I have recently seen policies and politics akin to what's being proposed.

Argentina may not have capital gains tax, but it does have taxes on property sales with stamp duty on rented accommodation. It may not have resource rentals, but it does have GST on utility leases like water of 27 per cent. It may not have a punitive emissions trading scheme, but it does have taxes on primary exports of up to 35 per cent. Argentina has a tax for almost every occasion and it also has 30 per cent inflation.

As some Argentine farmers face 86 per cent taxation, the only way to survive is to farm in wide but ever decreasing circles. Its big export is soy. More than 20 million hectares are in cultivation and that's a lot more acreage in one crop than the size of the South Island. It is also overwhelmingly genetically modified and that, I have been told, came at the behest of the Argentine government. All needed to fund a tax and spend catch-22.

What is at stake here is a very large chunk of New Zealand's $50 billion merchandise exports which pay for everyone's daily bread.

A calculated demonisation of farming is an attempt to drive a wedge between a farming minority and the urban majority. It plays on every cliche and every negative perception about farming and it was telling there was no mention of the Land and Water Forum's success. It is a worry when many positives seen in the Ballance Farm Environment Awards, the Dairy Industry Awards, QEII National Trust and the NZ Landcare Trust are blithely ignored.

While Labour certainly took one small step forward with its monetary policy, this tone represents one giant leap backwards for New Zealand.

Bruce Wills is the President of Federated Farmers.

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