Thursday, July 7, 2022

Local paper weighs in to debate

A headline in the Southland Times in November alerted farm leaders to what had happened – an Environment Southland compliance officer had effectively acknowledged in court that its written case against a farm owner and manager it was prosecuting contained untrue statements.

That revelation prompted Federated Farmers to call for a deeper review of Environment Southland’s systems and culture than it expected would be provided by the council’s appointment of environmental lawyer Karenza de Silva to conduct a legal audit of its compliance division.

When the audit identified poor processes and procedures, but no dishonest or fraudulent behaviour, the Southland Times said the focus had been too narrow. Some of the most troubling complaints against the division – arrogance of approach, in particular – had been deemed beyond its scope and best confronted by internal re-examinations.

The newspaper also said the council had a huge job ahead of it to win back public confidence.

“What we have here is a council that needs to show signs not just of penitence but real progress rehabilitating its public standing,” an editorial said.

However, dairy farmers have also been the target of blunt editorial criticism.

A year ago, the newspaper expressed disappointment when a snap audit by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) found a huge discrepancy between what dairy farmers said they did and what actually occurred. The audit found only 42% of 587 farms inspected around the country excluded stock from waterways. That was just half the level that had been reported in a Fonterra farmer survey.

More recently, after a dairy farm owner was fined for allowing effluent to run into a stream, the newspaper had no sympathy for his complaint that the $48,000 penalty was too stiff and the environmental protection officers who brought the prosecution were too officious. It said all farmers had a clear responsibility to keep stock, effluent and fertiliser out of streams and rivers.

No, the newspaper wasn’t picking on dairy farmers, editor Fred Tulett said. It had taken a position on the pollution of local waterways several years earlier.

Finance Minister and Clutha-Southland MP Bill English had been the catalyst. In a speech to a local group about the poor water quality in Southland rivers he had reminisced about his childhood days in Dipton and swimming in Oreti River, adding he couldn’t swim in that river, or in most local rivers, now.

“And so I got some of my staff looking at water quality, found that it wasn’t great, and we’ve been pushing that barrow out ever since,” Tulett said.

“Dairy farming has been a focus because when things go wrong it is so obviously a pollutant and a serious problem. But it’s not just dairy farming, as we have pointed out repeatedly in our editorials. It’s all types of farming, and urban community discharges as well.”

In the lead-up to the last general election, Tulett and his team decided to campaign for better water quality. They went to all the political parties, local authorities and interest groups in the region and based much of their election coverage on the declining quality of water in the south.

“We did that because we believed it was one area to which all our readers could relate and at the same time we had the chance to impose some influence and some checks on some of the things that were going on,” Tulett said.

“I know it wasn’t popular with the farming sector, but we don’t do things necessarily to be popular, especially when this is such an important issue.”

He said dairying was of vital importance to the economic well-being of his region, but that didn’t mean it should be open slather.

“We need to have controls in place so that we extract as much economic good out of our region as we can, while at the same time bringing back the water quality that we need to have here for the people who are going to come after us.”

So the newspaper had supported Environment Southland’s efforts to improve water quality in the region, he said.

He cited a council report on an analysis of local lakes and waterways.

“I think it found only one river in the whole region that was good quality, and that was a remote river in Fiordland.”

Tulett has been a fisherman since he was a boy, so water quality is important to him.

Improvement

In the 14 years he had been editing the Southland Times there had been massive improvement, he said. He could remember writing pieces years ago about riparian buffers, when they started being promoted. Farmers had made huge strides since then.

“And that’s one of the big clean-ups that farmers can do to protect the waterways.”

Tulett, 66, was born in Timaru and growing up in the 1950s he was one of seven kids with several uncles and aunts around South Canterbury. At weekends the family would drive to a river bed somewhere with food for a picnic. His parents would sit around while the kids played in the water – “and of course you drank the water, but you wouldn’t want to do it now”.

The Tuletts had a sheep and cropping farm at St Andrews until he was about five, but the business suffered from an irregular water supply. In dry summers this created a serious problem. Tullett recalled driving to a local river in his father’s old truck and using buckets to fill 40-gallon drums to take back to the farm.

The family later moved to Timaru, where his father worked on the wharf, and at 18 he became a journalist.

“It’s a particularly enjoyable job when you can make a difference,” he said.

Under his editorship the Southland Times has tried to do that through campaigns on a range of issues, including the “We Need You” campaign in 2001. Soon after he arrived in Invercargill in 1998 the chief statistician published a report saying the city was the fastest-shrinking in Australasia. A real estate agent told him 550 houses were for sale, most of them empty.

“We were losing a busload – 50 people – a week.”

The province had been in the economic doldrums for several years and there was a moratorium on new dairy farm conversions, although a dairying boom was clearly coming. About $130 million was invested in an extension to the dairy plant at Edendale. As soon as that was opened the moratorium was lifted and there was an explosion of conversions.

“Suddenly the province was ready to move,” Tulett said. “But there were no workers here any more.”

Crews were flown in from Australia to help with the conversions. Tullett came up with the “We Need You” campaign to attract people to the province after talking to business people. The message was highlighted in a special edition, which was inserted in daily newspapers around the country.

“And it worked,” Tulett said.

The newspaper takes stands because he thinks it needs to.

“Even if they are not going to be popular with some people they are things that need to be done,” he said.

So what has been his relationship with Federated Farmers during his campaign to clean up the waterways?

He believes it has been much like his relationship with most sector groups and influence sectors down south.

“Sometimes we are marching to the same drum beat and sometimes we’re not, and that’s as it should be,” he said.

Actively involved

“I think a regional newspaper like the Southland Times has not just got to report what is going on but be actively involved in the community. It should be a leader in the community and help lead opinion I and I try to do that not in the news columns but in the editorial column.”

What about the reaction from dairy farmers?

“They haven’t flooded me but they will come in and chat and tell me they are not happy.”

The main thrust of what the federation  and the dairy groups have told him is simple: the newspaper’s readers are getting the impression that everybody is fouling the waterways and most of them aren’t. They know there are a few rat-bags out there and farmers are trying hard to sort them out.

To put things in context, Tulett said, apart from the pre-election water-quality series the newspaper had largely been reporting court cases, when Environment Southland prosecuted farmers for effluent discharges, and it reported the comments made by judges.

The newspaper keeps a regular watch, too, on official reports on water quality, to see what improvements are taking place.

What about the regional council’s performance?

The newspaper’s relationship with it is the same as it is with farmers: sometimes the editorials agree with the council and sometimes they castigate it. An editorial in November urged the council not to apologise for taking a hard line on discharges, but to take a hard line in a way that everyone could see was fair and above board.

Does Tulett get strong support from environmentalists and the Greens?

They were reactive rather than proactive, he said.

“So they won’t come to us and say, ‘you should be doing something about this’.

“We’ll publish something and they will come to us and say, ‘it is outrageous, they shouldn’t be doing this’.

“So there isn’t a lobby group that has had any contact with me that’s been pushing a line.”

The waterways issue seems fairly simple to Tulett.

“I think that was enunciated in the editorial that we ran two months ago. Dairying is central to the economy down here, as is agriculture generally. And we need to be able to extract as much economic drive was we can out of those activities.

“But we must do it essentially in a sustainable way.”

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