Yesterday on The Country, host Jamie Mackay asked National's spokesman for primary industries Todd Muller 10 questions about the Government's proposed freshwater plan. Today it's the turn of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
How many other populated agricultural nations in the world are demanding waterways to be effectively pristine from source to mouth? New Zealand never has been in the past. Our rivers were utilised sewers and industrial drains as recently as the 1970s. Do you think we're aiming too high?
Ardern: No. We're not seeking to make water pristine. No one's seeking here for it to be drinkable or anything like that. We're seeking to be as we were perhaps in the 1980s, a period where people were able to swim in waterways without the same degree of concern around becoming ill.
And you're right to say that we do have work to do around sewage and industrial outfalls, but there have been improvements there. Standards for wastewater and stormwater mean the likes of Auckland have to do better. They've already said they'll be spending $900 million to improve separation of sewage.
So this is both an urban issue and it's also a rural issue. And we're not the only ones. Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland are all attempting to tackle these very issues as well.
Have farmers been given sufficient time to meet the 2025 deadline? Why not, for instance, 2030, if this a generational change? And a six-week consultation period for farmers at the busiest time of the year! Surely that's a badly timed joke?
Ardern: The 2025 date - that is not when we have to achieve things by. That's actually the beginning. That's when the new regional plans to improve things have to be in place by, and then they have a prospective effect.
We've been very clear. This has taken decades to cause. We can not fix it in five years and we would never expect it to be fixed in five years - we said a generation.
Farmer's open letter to Jacinda Ardern: Part 2
Listen: Is the Govt too tough on the primary sector?
Farmer's open letter to Jacinda Ardern
• Farmer's open letter to Jacinda Ardern: Part 2
In the meantime, we've said let's just try until 2025 not to let it get any worse then where we are right now.
Mackay: OK what about the six-week consultation period? Surely you're going to have to look at that?
Ardern: That is our standard submission period. The one thing that I will say, though, is this is a discussion document. Before that, we had the likes of the ex- CEO of Synlait, we had the likes of the chair of Miraka, we had individuals who have represented farming leaders on the groups that helped to form this discussion document.
After that then we see legislative processes, that has more consultation. There is a lot of conversation going on here and it won't be beginning and ended at six weeks.
Will this new water policy crash land values (especially in the likes of intensive irrigated Canterbury land) where nitrogen use must drop by up to 80 per cent? Will these landowners be compensated if an alternative land use is not as profitable?
Ardern: I think this is a really important point to make. The final targets for nitrogen will not be set until after the consultation and you'll see the discussion document leaves wide open whether we have different limits for instance, for low land rivers in Canterbury. There's no doubt improvements are needed but we have left that open.
There are lots of ways to improve that won't lead to those decline in land value or profitability. Absolutely we have our eye on this and as I say on the nitrogen, we are genuinely seeking people's feedback there.
Question four and five:
What is the real cost of compliance? The Government is estimating $10k per annum for a lowland dairy operation and $15k pa for a rolling hill country sheep and beef farm. From whose backside were these figures plucked?
What effect will the cost of compliance have on regional council rates for urban and rural folk alike? Auckland would go broke if it had to fix its water woes by 2025.
Mackay: This is going to be very expensive to put into place.
Ardern: What you've also asked is that both urban and rural - that we all do our bit on water ... as I've said the likes of Aucklanders spending that $900 million, they've had to look at how they specifically focus on rates or rate payers contributing on water improvements ...
Cost of compliance for our rural sector, you will have seen that there's been estimates in the document, but it really depends on the farm.
You'll see very different costs for instance for the average dairy farm versus beef versus sheep,of course, because they don't have the same fencing requirements.
So we've attempted to put a price on that but there will be variations.
One thing I come back to though, Jamie, is the cost of doing nothing ... we're in a very competitive world now and I do not want New Zealand to lose its competitive edge because we're not fulfilling consumers' expectations. So there is a cost to doing nothing.
What about the cost to our economy? Do you think we run the risk of killing the golden goose? The primary sector makes up 70 per cent of our export earnings. Of that, 28 per cent comes from the dairy industry.
Ardern: I know that we have to take this journey together and one thing again, I think we do a disservice here if we don't acknowledge that there are farmers and farming leaders who are leading the way on this work.
What we've discussed is the pace at which we bring everyone up to the standard that they're setting.
The primary sector leaders that I meet with regularly do tell me that this is where their international markets are going. We do need to be concerned about getting in front of it and it will have cost us less in the long term if we plan that. That we give ourselves that generation for improvement rather than having to do it in five years and leaving it 'til we're in a really bad state before we try.
Is this water plan tougher on farmers than urban dwellers? Do cities have to have their house in order by 2025? Why do rural rivers have to be swimmable but urban rivers less so?
Ardern: One of the issues of course [is] just the different solutions that will need to be used. In Auckland ... council deals with it. Here, we acknowledge we're asking individual farmers and that's why we've taken a very different approach.
We're not assisting councils but we are in the budget we've put together a $229 million land use package to support farmers with challenges like this.
There's a very specific question I want to draw your attention to in the discussion document. It asks how we can ease the cost burden. How we can basically help with some of the tools that might be necessary - farm environment plans and the like - are there ways we can help support with some of the costs and the burden on our farmers.
I really ask people, please give us those ideas, we know we need to support everyone in this transition.
Besides, to play devil's advocate, what's with the fascination of swimming in rivers? Isn't that dangerous? Isn't that why we built school swimming pools in the 1950s, 60s and 70s?
Ardern: Keeping in mind the short hand that we use for standards for healthy waterways. Not having healthy waterways has a whole range of other consequences.
So you use the shorthand of swimmable rivers but there's a lot that sits underneath that. It's not an obsession around just this idea for individuals to be able to jump in the water. There's a lot of reasons why you want to have that level of water quality.
Where's Winston on this? NZ First, the champion of the regions, has been strangely silent? Will Winston abandon ship, jump waka - or is he totally on board with this?
Ardern: Yeah he is. We're all part of the Cabinet and he wants clean rivers and unclogged estuaries as well.
What we all agree is that we need to work together with our farming community and this is not and issue here of stating any blame here.
There's lots of reasons we're in the current situation and there's lots of reasons that we have exemplary farmers out there who are leading the way.
We just need to be support others to be able to do the same.
How much of this policy is a sop to the green, urban, liberal vote that is daily being fed a somewhat distorted view of what's really happening on farm?
Ardern: I am interested absolutely in the health and wellbeing of our rural communities - I am.
To the people who say that they think this is a sop to the urban liberals ... I think we do a disservice to our farming community to imply that they don't want to lift those environmental outcomes and standards.
We all trade on our brand and I think we want to be genuine about it.
We're genuinely going to listen to the feedback that we get. There are still some very open questions for us so please - let your views be heard.