PoliticsSeptember 2, 2017

Jacinda Ardern exposes a potential environmental weakness for Labour on cows


Jacinda Ardern met a cute dog today and also faced up to questions about the environment. She did not say what some people might expect.

The Green Party announced a plan today to help some farmers move out of dairying and assist others to operate more sustainably. The Greens’ plan would be funded by a tax on nitrates, which leach into the soil and waterways from animal effluent.

Jacinda Ardern went walkabout in the rain in her Mt Albert electorate today, and quite a lot of excited fans came out to meet her. So did the media, who asked her about that Green Party policy.

Do you support a tax on nitrates?

She said that was a Greens policy and it was not included in the Labour policy.

Do you think there are too many cows in New Zealand?

She answered by referring to council environmental policies and large-scale herds and the right processes that needed to be gone through and she mentioned that she was being very clear about all this.

But do you think there are too many cows in New Zealand?

See above.

But do you think there are too many cows in New Zealand?

See above. Later, journalists came back to the issue.

There have been two reports from environmental authorities this year claiming the dairy industry is causing too much damage to waterways and that the herd will need to be reduced. Do you think there are too many cows in New Zealand?

She said Labour does not think the herd size should increase. “That’s unsustainable,” she said.

But do you think there are too many cows in New Zealand?

See above. Other matters were discussed. Then:

Do you think farmers have been demonised by the green movement?

She said no, and that everyone should share a common aspiration. “It should not be them and us.”

Do you think this is important to what you have called the defining issue of your generation, climate change?

She talked about the importance of mitigation, going forward. “That’s how we’ll fight climate change.”

Are you saying adaptation is not part of the way Labour will fight climate change? Adaptation would mean reducing the number of cows.

Adaptation is important too, she said.

Later again, she came over to clarify. She said the Labour policy is to require farmers thinking of moving into dairy to have sustainable management policies in place, and to work with local bodies to ensure there is no expansion of environmental degradation, especially as it might be caused by large-scale herds. Effectively, she said, the party will try to draw a line. Better practices “going forward”, but “no retrospective action, no”.

The Labour Party does not have a policy to reduce the number of dairy cows in New Zealand.

That was that.

Jacinda Ardern campaigning in Kingsland, in the Mt Albert electorate. (Photo Simon Wilson.)

It’s clear there is a town and country divide in this election. It’s been stoked up by all sides. Labour’s tax on water is resisted by the farming lobby. National tells farmers all the time it is the only party defending it against attacks by urbanites and environmentalists. The Greens want to roll out substantial changes to some farming practices, and they want to reduce the number of cows in New Zealand by helping farmers move to other options. That will worry farmers who believes they can do better with dairy than with those other options.

Farmers themselves have become extremely skilled at stoking the town and country divide. They have a two-prong message: 1) they are already doing heaps to mitigate the pollution of our waterways, and 2) they resent being “demonised”, their new word of choice, by city folk.

The statement of the recently formed Farming Leaders Group was a classic example of this. If you believed them, you would think we don’t even have a problem with either polluted waterways or methane emissions. That, plainly, is absurd.

The “farmers are doing just fine without advice from the city” lobby has powerful advocates in parliament. They’re called the National Party. And it’s true, many farmers are pursuing very sound environmental practices. Of course they are, and Jacinda Ardern is right: we’re all in this together. Many farmers get that.

But many do not. Too many do not.

The issue is whether the economic argument should supersede the environmental argument. Dairy creates wealth for us all, or, economic and environmental planning should be fully integrated. Labour is not the cheerleader for this. That role, now as always, belongs to the Greens. And that, in effect, was Jacinda Ardern’s message today. @simonbwilson

Keep going!