Week in Politics: Farmer fury over emissions pricing proposals

6:03 pm on 14 October 2022
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces farm emissions pricing proposals with Climate Change Minister James Shaw, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty.

The government's emissions pricing proposals are being met with mixed reviews. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Analysis: There's rural outrage over the government's emissions pricing proposals for agriculture amid confusion over what the future really holds for farmers, and a swing to the right in council elections should be worrying the Labour Party.

The government unveiled its long-awaited agricultural sector emissions pricing plan on Tuesday and ran straight into rural wrath.

Farmers will start paying for their greenhouse gas emissions from 2025, based on a plan developed by He Waka Eke Noa, a partnership between the government and farmers, industry bodies and Māori.

But the government has tweaked it, as RNZ explained in its report on the proposals, and the proposals set out in the discussion paper don't allow the sector to set prices.

On Wednesday the government faced full-on doomsday criticism, ranging from "ripping the guts out of small town New Zealand" (Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard) to "utterly, utterly unacceptable" (National Party leader Christopher Luxon).

It's a complex, technical set of proposals and it's still in the discussion document stage with a final plan to be signed off by the government next year.

With the actual price still to be set there's ample scope for disputed calculations and selective interpretations of what the modelling shows.

Owen Jennings, a former president of Federated Farmers, said farmers were mired in confusion.

"Farmers still have no idea where the latest proposal will end. They are uncertain where a National/ACT government would take them," he said in an article published by the Herald.

"Farmers' instincts have told them something is badly wrong.

"Despite being under severe pressure from a raft of other ill-considered regulations and running ragged managing their day-to-day operations, they are prepared to do what is right and responsible. What they find is dangerous thinking, muddled policy, hurtful claims and disturbing confusion."

National hadn't seen the proposals before they were released and the party's initial reaction was cautious.

Agriculture spokesperson Barbara Kuriger said her party was committed to reaching emissions targets but felt the announcement put consensus with the industry at risk.

The next day Luxon hardened up, delivering a broadside on Morning Report.

"The thing that I find really, really disturbing is that we're going to get rid of one-fifth of our sheep and beef farmers by 2030, in less than seven years," he said.

Pressed on whether National, if put into government next year, would bring the levy in by 2025, Luxon said he would support what farmers wanted.

"I trust farmers, I understand that they get this issue. What the government proposed yesterday is utterly, utterly unacceptable," he said.

Luxon told Newstalk ZB the proposals were "an absolute shocker, completely unacceptable" and pointed at modelling in the plan that showed that by 2030 net revenue for sheep and beef farms could reduce by between 18 per cent and 24 per cent, based on different prices for methanol.

He confirmed a National government would repeal it and support "an industry solution", referring to the recommendations put forward in May by He Waka Eke Noa.

The Herald tried to get to the bottom of what National was talking about, and failed.

"Both Federated Farmers and National were unable to provide the Herald with data within the industry plan that would allow a direct comparison to show how the impacts would differ," its report said.

ACT's primary industries spokesman Mark Cameron predicted the plan would be a hot topic in election year, RNZ reported.

"Farmers and rural people seem to be jumping through rings of fire to mitigate all manner of things quite often when the problems are ill-defined and the solutions equally so," he said.

The chief architect of the proposals, Climate Change Minister James Shaw, said Luxon was confused.

"The government's proposals for agricultural emissions pricing is directly based on modelling and the system put forward by the sector partnership He Waka Eke Noa," he said.

"When Mr Luxon comes out swinging in response to the government's proposals and says we should go back to what the sector was proposing, he should be upfront about what he is actually calling for."

But while National is strongly favouring its agricultural base and looking for the farmer votes it lost to Labour in the last election, it has to tread a fine line.

Farmer votes alone don't win elections and the party has to convince the townies it is serious about cutting agricultural emissions.

That's why Luxon emphasised during his numerous interviews this week that National was absolutely committed to the bi-partisan target of getting New Zealand's total emissions down to net zero by 2050.

"Farmers and climate: toughest game of all for Nats" was the headline on an article by Stuff political editor Luke Malpass the morning after the report was released.

"On the one hand, the party has been trying to fully re-engage more with a rural base, a portion of which feel that John Key and Bill English pocketed their votes and didn't do an awful lot for them," Malpass said.

"On the other, the party is trying to win the votes of nominally climate conscious middle New Zealand and swing voters back from Labour."

His conclusion was that Labour appeared to be ready to wear the political risk, however it fell.

"The real question now is where National will end up landing on this particular plan. And where it lands will say a lot about the still-forming political instincts of Luxon and his top team," Malpass said.

The Herald's political editor Claire Trevett had a similar take on National's dilemma.

"Dealing with it is more fraught for National rather than Labour for the simple truth that those crying foul the loudest are those who vote for them rather than Labour: the farmers," she said.

Trevett said National's initial reaction had noted that the party was committed to the emissions reduction targets - including in agriculture - but also that the plan could have a significant impact on rural communities.

"It wants to have its cake and eat it too," Trevett said.

She thought National would try to assess just how serious the wrath of farmers was - whether it was "hyperbolic hot air" to strengthen their position in the consultation before the plan was finalised, or whether it was more than that.

As for the government, it would aim to make the farming sector's objections seem unreasonable and disproportionate, she said.

The consultation period ends on 18 November. The government has said it will sign off on the final proposals next year.

The timeline ensures it's going to have an impact on the election, and Labour stands to lose the rural votes and seats it grabbed from National last time.

They were always temporary. Rural voters knew National wasn't going to win and, according to Andrea Vance in her book Blue Blood, a slice of the farming vote went to Labour because they didn't want a Labour/Greens coalition government. They preferred to have a Labour majority government, and that was what they got.

All that has changed. National under Luxon has overtaken Labour in the polls, and rural voters have a real alternative to consider. They won't again be faced with having to vote for what they see as the best of two bad options.

The government couldn't take any comfort from the council elections last weekend, which were seen as an indication of a public mood for change.

Labour-endorsed candidates for the Auckland and Wellington mayoralties, Efeso Collins and Paul Eagle, were soundly beaten.

The Herald said voters overwhelmingly opted for a change of direction.

"Right-leaning mayors triumphed in Auckland, Christchurch, Rotorua and other regions in a contest which could signal a broader mood for change ahead of next year's general election," it said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morning Report the results were not necessarily indicative of a shift in feeling on national politics.

She dismissed the idea that the defeat of Labour-endorsed candidates reflected dissatisfaction with her party.

"I've never been one to read particularly into local government elections in that way, or to make direct comparisons," she said.

Ardern recalled that when Helen Clark was prime minister John Banks was mayor of Auckland, and Len Brown during John Key's reign.

"I don't think there's a simple straight reflection, particularly when you don't have straight political party tickets in the same way."

Luxon, unsurprisingly, had a different view.

He said the voters had sent a message to the Labour government by supporting most right-leaning candidates.

Ardern and Luxon did agree on one thing - the low voter turnout meant there was work to do on local government electoral systems.

Reports said initial analysis showed little more than a third of voters posted their ballots.

Local Government New Zealand chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene said LGNZ wanted to work with the government to review how elections were handled.

Ardern said voting needed to be made easier.

Luxon also said change was needed.

* Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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