Strong, productive farming and high environmental standards can go hand in hand, Prime Minister Bill English told Mid Canterbury farmers at a meeting in Ashburton on Tuesday.
English, along with ministers Simon Bridges, Amy Adams and Toddy McClay, Rangitata's outgoing MP Jo Goodhew and candidate Andrew Falloon, were the guests of honour at a meeting hosted by Irrigation New Zealand (INZ) and Federated Farmers in Ashburton, in response to the water tax being proposed by the Labour Party as part of its freshwater policy.
INZ chair Nicky Hyslop told the 400-strong crowd that irrigators were being unfairly blamed for the country's water quality issues.
She said INZ was "horrified" by Labour's proposed water tax. She said irrigators acknowledged they had to work hard to minimise their environmental impact, but New Zealand was a rural based economy providing 77 per cent of the country's exports.
"Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," she said.
English was on the farmers' side, saying New Zealanders had worked too hard to now be treated as ATMs by the Labour Party.
National had been striving to lift New Zealand's environmental standards for some time, but Labour were making it seem like their idea was new, English said.
English said he didn't want to see New Zealand go backwards by undoing the hard work done on trade agreements, and said New Zealand could be a high producer with high environmental standards.
"We just do not accept that one comes at the expense of the other," English said.
"We reject the idea that we can only have a high standard environment in New Zealand if we don't have farming and horticulture.
"We can sustain our environment and add to its value by lifting the environmental standards and that's why these arguments about taxes are so frustrating."
English said New Zealand had one of the best tax systems in the world, and if it wanted a strong economy, should not penalise those creating it. He said Labour was proposing taxes that would impact hard on regional New Zealand.
"The people who make the decisions that amount to actually having an impact on the environment are the dairy workers opening the gates at 5am in the morning, the farm managers making the decision about what day the effluent is going to be spread, the farmer who makes the decision that in the next couple of months they can get their waterways fenced," English said.
"We are not here to punish you for running your business.
"We are smart enough to build on this fantastic, unique, global structure we have in global food, and lift our environmental quality at the same time."
A farmer at the meeting told English that Labour was conducting a simple, populist campaign, and rural people were struggling to explain to urban people what was so wrong about the proposed water tax. In response, English urged people to just keep telling people what they were doing and that systems were there to ensure water quality was high.
One meeting-goer, concerned the National Party would go down in the September 23 election, urged English to go down fighting.
"We'll do better than that, we are going to win fighting," English said.
Hyslop told those at the meeting that other party leaders had been invited to speak to farmers on the issue, and would be given the opportunity to, if they accepted that invitation.