21 Oct 2022

Politicians respond to Groundswell protests

9:23 am on 21 October 2022
Damien O'Connor

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

A low turnout of the Groundswell protest at Parliament is embarrassing for the organisers, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says.

The farming advocacy group held protests across the country today in opposition to the proposal for a farm-level emissions pricing scheme.

The government is seeking feedback on the proposal, which is based on the He Waka Eke Noa plan put forward by a partnership between farmers, sector groups, Māori and government ministries.

Members of the Voices For Freedom group had a notable presence at many of the demontrations.

Roads were relatively unaffected - with the exception of some traffic getting caught in the middle of the convoys.

A small crowd of protesters - estimated to be fewer than 100 people - gathered at Parliament, though it was hard to gauge the size given the presence of a second protest event over fair pay.

A groundswell protester among a scattered crowd on Parliament's lawn.

A Voices for Freedom protester among the scattered crowd on Parliament's lawn. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

O'Connor said he had not met with the protesters and did not plan to.

"They're entitled to have their voice ... I want to see solutions not slogans and I think some of them are completely wrong," he said.

He described the size of the crowd as embarrassing.

"Embarrassing for them, not as many as they thought I guess."

National's Deputy Leader Nicola Willis on the other hand had been spending time with the protesters, and seemed to take up their cause.

"National's preference is to have a scheme that accounts for the good work that farmers do on farm and we want to see more of - regenerative farming, planning of bush, riparian planting, more efficiency in the farming system," she said.

"We also want to encourage uptake of technology in investment in breakthrough technology which will allow farming to occur in a lower-emission way."

Willis suggested the size of the crowd in Wellington was not reflective of the wider movement.

"Look, you might have noticed this isn't the farming capital of New Zealand, there are small towns in regions around the country who will have protesters today, and I'm sure they've showed out in force."

"We need to remember that farmers pay a lot of bills in this country - when they're doing well, New Zealand's doing well - and so look, today National stands with those farmers who say a proposal that will shut down one in five sheep and beef farms and send that production offshore where people will do it in a higher-emissions less sustainable way doesn't make sense."

National's deputy leader Nicola Willis speaks to Groundswell protesters on the Parliament forecourt.

National's deputy leader Nicola Willis speaks to Groundswell protesters on the Parliament forecourt. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

It must be noted the Ministry for Primary Industries and Ministry for the Environment modelling of a 20 percent reduction in sheep and beef farming related specifically to land use.

It also found some land use change will occur regardless of the system's design and changes in technology could reduce the effect.

Research into whether reducing food production in New Zealand would lead to an increase in emissions overseas is also unclear, and suggests the increase in overseas emissions would be much less than the decrease in New Zealand.

Willis said because New Zealand was the first country in the world to come up with a plan to price on-farm biological emissions, the government needed to be careful.

"I think what people are concerned about is let's not do a big experiment that fails. And failure would be potentially irreversible. If we had potentially one in five farms actually becoming non-viable and shutting then it's very hard to get that started again so I think we just want there to be due care.

"We want to work with farmers to come up with a scheme that puts the incentives in the right place, but it can't be punitive. Actually they've got to have options - if there isn't technology available we don't want to see a situation where they're having to stop production and it's going to happen in a less sustainable way elsewhere."

Climate Minister James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party, said he was unsurprised by the protests.

"I've always said people have got a right to protest, it's not surprising that they're protesting at the moment because they've always said they're opposed to agricultural emissions pricing."

James Shaw

James Shaw Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

ACT's leader David Seymour said he had not met with the protesters, though some other MPs from his party had. He raised concerns about other groups having hijacked the protests.

"I understand that there's been quite a range of people trying to hijack the event," he said.

"My understanding is you've got some other groups with other causes that have tried to get on the bandwagon so to speak, our view is we support the opposition to an avalanche of regulation that rural New Zealanders faced I think that they do need to be stood up for."

"ACT believes that the climate policy imposed upon farmers is wrong for the simple reason it's a tax on food that will force food production to less efficient producers offshore, damaging New Zealand's agriculture and the climate.

David Seymour

David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"But I wouldn't have much to say about some of the other people that have tried to hijack the process today."

Consultation on the government's proposed response to He Waka Eke Noa closes on 18 November, with final proposals to go to ministers for approval next year.

Turnout low in other centres

A couple hundred protesters gathered each in Auckland and Christchurch.

Down in Dunedin, where there were less than 100 people, Groundswell Co-Founder Bryce McKenzie addressed supporters.

"Look around you ... every fifth farmer you see here will be gone by 2030, and the ones left will be under immense pressure and strain" McKenzie said.

Hawkes Bay Farmer Richard did not think the policy would work and went down to the steps of Parliament.

"The tax is going to make our businesses unviable in a lot of cases, so I'm really worried about the social aspects in rural New Zealand" he said.

"The freezing works in Wairou for example, the small towns like Pahiatua, Danneverke, Eketāhuna that rely on farmers to buy products ... they're going to disappear and we're going to have a blanket of pine trees."

Rural advocate Jamie McFadden said government regulations were taking a toll on farmers.

"I'm sitting around kitchen tables with farmers in tears - and these are good farmers, just trying to get on with their lives," McFadden said.

In Wellington, a small counter protest was set up on the track to parliament.

Valerie Morse said the emissions tax scheme was not good because it was "totally inadequate".

"Farming should be brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme with no dirty discounts - we are tired of subsidising the pollution and the destruction of the climate and New Zealand's waterways as well."

Without the He Waka Eke Noa proposal, farmers will be forced to join the Emissions Trading Scheme from 2025.

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