Former Federated Farmers president Dr William Rolleston says the so-called ‘urban/rural’ divide can more accurately be described as a rural/media divide.
Rolleston, who was awarded a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) in December of last year, feels that in regard to environmental sustainability farmers are “more engaged in the conversation now” but are still being hampered by a media that is “time and resource-poor”:
“I think it’s important to make sure the argument is balanced, and you have to do that by making sure you have a well-informed media. We don’t seem to have people who can do really good investigative work and give a balanced story. I think we’re seeing a rural/media divide rather than a rural/urban divide... the reason for the media going after the agricultural sector (farming specifically) lies in their desire to go after anybody successful- that sells news. In support of that notion, we’ve seen a shift since tourism became a bigger industry in our country than dairy; the media has now begun to go after the tourism industry.”
Rolleston feels the national media, along with those at the extreme end of the environmentalist argument like Mike Joy, are more interested in sensationalism and “soundbites” than facts and scientific rhetoric:
“These arguments are not won on a soundbite. They are won over a period of a time by sticking to the facts and the evidence. That’s where farmers have to sit; if we lower ourselves to that kind of sound bite sensationalism then we’ll lose credibility and we’ll lose that political capital. Mike Joy on his website has a graph showing environmental impacts and economic benefit of farming going up, and eventually the economic benefits slowing while the environmental impacts continue to skyrocket. Now that’s true, but what he doesn’t show is where farmers actually are on that scale. Whether something is true or factual doesn’t matter if you’re going to completely ignore the context. Where we see things that are blatantly untrue, we need to keep plugging away in that area.”
That “political capital” Rolleston talks about is what he sees as the proper name for what others term “social license”:
“Political capital is something that you gradually build up to gain trust and make people more permissive. It is very easily eroded, and so you must work hard to maintain it. If you look at agriculture in this current debate, I do think political capital has been eroded. However, I also think things are a lot better on that front than they were a decade or so ago, when farmers pushed back against everything. Since Bruce Willis came in (and me following him), Federated Farmers have said “look there is an issue here, farmers are having an impact on the environment, and where it is reasonable we will do something about it”. I think that mindset is starting to rebuild political capital but I think it’ll be awhile before it’s properly built back up again.”
Looking to the future, Rolleston says the best path to take towards achieving both environmental sustainability and a flourishing agricultural sector is one that focuses on facts and scientific reasoning, leaving personal and political agendas at the door. :
“We just need to stick to the facts. We saw a number of the NGO’s pulling out of the land and water forum because they were unhappy with the government. Now I’m not an apologist for the national government, but I believe they’ve actually changed the direction of travel in terms of environmental outcomes and agriculture, and I don't think they'll be recognised for that for some time. I also think that a lot of the NGO’s pulled out because they have a rhetoric about the only way to solve the environmental impact of agriculture being to flash the number of dairy cows, and actually the land and water forum has shown us that you can have your cake and eat it too- we don’t need to reduce cow numbers. They didn’t want to believe that, and in my view that is why they pulled out. I think for some it was a stunt before the general election.
"That’s not how you engage farmers. I think some progress has been made, but in the long run, it will be a lot slower because of things like the dirty-dairying campaign, which simply discourage farmers from entering the conversation at all. These environmental things often progress naturally anyway, but I think the damaging of relations between farmers and environmentalists has created a situation where it will take far longer to really achieve something we can be proud of.”
Rolleston says that a bottom-up approach to the issue will yield the best results, in other words: working catchment by catchment, engaging farmers and getting them to work together to solve major issues. The issue at the moment, he feels, is getting the new Labour Government on board with this strategy:
“I certainly think there are ministers in the current government who don’t think a bottom-up approach is the right one and prefer a top-down approach. I am keen on getting the message across to them that a catchment-based approach, identifying hot spots and targeting those hot spots, is actually the way to go. This is a far better approach than something like the water tax, where a person with a huge river running past their doorstep would be charged the same amount for taking and using that water as someone extracting the last drops of water from a tiny stream that’s the only water source for 50 miles. My view is that we need to find and concentrate on hot spots, not just clobber everybody in a wide, general swipe.”