Comment: The freshwater management reforms have been a very public lesson that those developing policy must take all our communities with them, writes Federated Farmers environment spokesman, Chris Allen.

It is decades since any Government initiative has caused rural New Zealand to rise up in such numbers as the Environment and Primary Industry Ministries' Action for Healthy Waterways management reforms.

Changes to freshwater management had been signalled since the election but only once the details of this extensive suite of policies, draft regulations and Resource Management Act changes were dropped on farmers did it become clear how widespread the impacts would be.

Technical terms such as dissolved inorganic nitrogen and degrees of slope were on every farmer's lips.

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Ministers and officials found themselves under-prepared in rural halls faced with crowds of highly knowledgeable and highly upset people.

Concerns were varied but consistent: an unreasonable consultation period; lack of industry involvement on highly technical issues; unrealistic and sometimes unachievable objectives.

At the end of a slightly extended eight weeks of consultation, the MfE inbox was bursting with more than 17,500 submissions.

A major sticking point throughout was the proposed consultation process.

One rushed round of consultation on three major regulatory documents, an appointed advisory panel, no hearings, and no input on any further changes before the regulations are in force.

Once the process was explained, any observer would have to be tone deaf to miss the outrage generated.

Federated Farmers environment spokesman, Chris Allen. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers environment spokesman, Chris Allen. Photo / Supplied

This was further reinforced by the quality and number of submissions from farmers, many of whom went to great lengths at the busiest time of the farming year to explain their story on how much they are already doing to improve water quality.

Throughout the Essential Freshwater public meetings farmers were assured that this was a true consultation process.

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We are hoping the same process of determining methane reduction targets in the Zero Carbon Bill will not apply here - science vs politics, apparent recognition of concerns, but ultimately the coalition Government went with methane reduction targets that the key agricultural stakeholders are adamant are scientifically unjustifiable and unachievable.

The recent march on Parliament showed the frustration of some, but the majority of farmers are still just waiting in uneasy silence.

Of concern was the message back to all 17,500 submitters by the Ministry for the Environment that the summary of Essential Freshwater submissions will not be released until after the Ministers have made their decisions.

Another round of déjà vu for farmers? All the time and effort to have their voices heard through thousands of personalised submissions, boiled down and served up cold once the decisions have already been made.

However, the Government is showing good signs of listening. For example, they have said that no farmer will be required to pull out any existing fences excluding livestock from waterways, despite the requirements of the rules as currently proposed.

In the freshwater public meetings Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor indicated that further consultation on the freshwater reforms with key industry stakeholders, including Federated Farmers, would occur and this has proved to be true.

Feds will engage in good faith with officials and ministers to achieve practical and workable outcomes catchment by catchment.

But let's not underestimate how significant the changes to the draft proposals are required to arrive at something that will achieve realistic water quality outcomes and a regime under which farmers and the nation can prosper.

It's been a very public lesson to all, that those developing policy must take all our communities with them.