The battle lines for the rural vote were decisively drawn in a political debate in Hamilton last night, and the options for voters defined.
An estimated 300 people who attended the Rural Issues Debate at the Mystery Creek Events Centre saw the National and ACT parties take aim at what they saw as a deluge of rules and regulations heaped on farmers in the past six years amid accusations the government has not backed the sector.
At the other end, Labour and the Greens said current policies are necessary and will provide farmers with opportunities.
NZ First was somewhere in the middle, saying the focus needs to be on getting the basics right, ensuring family farms remain viable and that farmers should not be judged on the lowest common denominator.
What was missing was a detailed presentation of each party’s policies, with much of the time devoted to accusations and general debate.
Organised by DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb New Zealand and Federated Farmers, the debate was moderated by Newstalk ZB host Heather du Plessis-Allan.
Asked if he took responsibility for the negative sentiment among farmers, Labour MP and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said he did not because covid and the Ukraine war have influenced factors such as inflation.
He also questioned whether the results of farmer surveys don’t reflect a natural farmer bias against Labour.
O’Connor rejected a claim that the volume of rules and regulations his government has introduced are partly responsible for rural mental health issues.
He countered that farmer representative groups have “over hyped” issues, such as saying 10,000 consents would be needed for intensive winter grazing.
Nationally just 350 applications were lodged, and 259 issued.
“That kind of irrational and emotional response from leadership is what leads people to fear what is coming at them.”
ACT election candidate Andrew Hoggard, a former Federated Farmers president, bristled at O’Connor’s accusation, saying that information was supplied by regional councils and he was representing the views of farmers.
Hoggard wants policies that make farming enjoyable and said new drinking water rules, for example, will not make that achievable.
Those rules require him to get resource consent to spray weeds over half his farm, including blackberry on his river boundary. If he does not control those weeds, they will collapse the fence allowing cows access to the river.
“What do you want, the blackberry controlled or cows in the river?”
National’s Todd McClay repeatedly hammered the line that farmers are over-regulated – which he said drives up costs and impacts viability. He said the current government does not back farmers.
He said new rules wrongly focus on compliance, not outcomes, and show a lack of trust in farmers at a time the country needs them.
“When we have a strong rural economy, we have a strong NZ economy.”
Farmers have told him they can spent 20% of their day on compliance paperwork but he said the government should only need that information once and then be responsible for sharing it between departments.
NZ First’s Mark Patterson asked why Green Party co-leader James Shaw was absent from the debate, saying this was “where the money is made not spent”.
Retiring MP Eugenie Sage fronted as Shaw was at a political debate on finance.
Patterson said the sector cannot rely on “cutting and slashing everything” to improve viability.
That would also not happen by selling commodity products but by lifting value behind the farm gate.
“What has happened is we have done too much too soon.
“This means chopping, changing and repealing things when they come up against the hard reality of farmer feedback, to the point where farmers have rolled up into a foetal position and won’t respond.”
Sage said regulation is needed to ensure the sector is positioned to confront challenges such as climate change, and from that will come opportunities.
“You can’t have a healthy planet and climate without a regulatory environment,” she said.