NZ Farmer - Labour manipulating farmers brilliantly over proposed water tax

 Farmers have played right into Labour's hands with their outcry over their water tax policy says Gerald Piddock.

Last month has seen floods of claims, counter claims, accusations, conflated figures of its impact and downright hysteria in some quarters of the rural sector.

Thankfully, the vast majority of dairy farms in Waikato are dryland apart from a handful that irrigate in South Waikato, so it will have a minor effect on farmers in this region.

A cynical person would see the tax as a simple, clever vote grab of the urban sector by the Labour Party.

Labour announced the policy, deliberately provided no information and sat back and watched the fury unfold.

Then they play bad cop/good cop.

Firstly David Parker holds a meeting in Ashburton to discuss the policy with farmers and after some prodding, admits it could be about one to two cents per 1000 litres.

If his reported comments at this meeting are anything to go by, nine years in the Opposition has not mellowed his attitude towards the primary sector. 

Then the good cop comes along in Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.  She explains her rural upbringing, how she wants to work with the sector and her exasperation at the direction of the debate over the policy and the subsequent rift it is creating between farmers and urban folk.

If that frustration is genuine, then she only has herself to blame.

Labour claimed the lack of detail around the policy was so it could be hammered out with industry leaders after the election. That sounded reasonable until Damien O'Connor was quoted in a rural newspaper that Labour did not have the resources in Opposition to do the research needed to come up with a proposed figure for the tax.

Really? It's convenient how they have forgotten the amount of freely available data there is from organisations such as DairyNZ, Beef+Lamb, the MPI and from the Lincoln University Dairy Farm.

The truth is they could have easily created farm budget models to show to farmers and give them a ballpark figure of the tax's potential impact.

Then an open and frank conversation - which Labour claim they wanted all along with farmers - could have begun. Instead, keeping farmers in the dark looks to be a deliberate ploy to keep the water tax in the news cycle in the leadup to the election.

Ardern was counting on a hysterical reaction and she got it. It's made her opponents look foolish by making ridiculous claims, ($18 cabbages anyone?) which has galvanised support for the tax in urban centres where most  votes are found.

It's no wonder recent polling has shown most people are backing the policy.

Adern would also be secretly smiling because it has cleverly diverted attention away from their plans to introduce biological emissions from farm animals into the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The great irony of this tax is that it will affect family-owned farms the most, the same group Labour has repeatedly lamented the demise of at the hands of corporates and syndicates over the past several years.

This latter group will absorb the cost and carry on because of their size.

Those farmers who use best practice and have invested in technology such as variable rate irrigation that allows them to use water in the most efficient and environmentally sustainably manner possible are also understandably angry.

But one thing Labour is right about is that far too many long farmers have taken their water use for granted.

They had to be kicking and screaming in Canterbury when it came to installing water meters and they did themselves no favours when last year it was revealed that one in five had serious non-compliance issues around their water allocation.

So clearly attitudes towards water need to change. But is a tax the right way to do that?

If this tax does become a reality, then it, along with farm animals coming into the ETS, will represent the biggest shakeup to farming since the removal of subsidies.