What are Aotearoa's farmers actually protesting about this Friday?

Explainer: Thousands of frustrated rural residents are protesting on Friday against a growing list of Government regulations and policies. Reporter Georgia Forrester looks at what these policies are, and why farmers say they have had enough.

Farmers, tradies, business people and families will be among the throngs of people tooting their ute horns and driving tractors in unified protest on Friday.

The “Howl of a Protest” event has been organised by a volunteer group of farmers and rural advocates called Groundswell NZ.

This movement is more than just frustrated cockies throwing their hands up in the air – thousands of rural New Zealanders want change, and they want the Government to listen.

At the core of the protest are seven demands relating to specific Government policies and regulations that farmers either want scrapped or re-written. Here’s a look at what these policies are, why the Government is implementing them, and why farmers are against them:

READ MORE:
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* Farmer frustration is boiling over after a ‘winter of discontent’ Federated Farmers president says
* Tractors, utes and dogs expected in Blenheim’s CBD for protest
* Farmers group plans more protest action as it expands into Canterbury and West Coast

Groundswell national co-ordinator Jamie McFadden, left, Classic Cookers co-owner Lois Mitchell and Flaxton farmer David McLaughlin.

ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff

Groundswell national co-ordinator Jamie McFadden, left, Classic Cookers co-owner Lois Mitchell and Flaxton farmer David McLaughlin.

What is the freshwater policy?

The health of New Zealand’s rivers and lakes has been steadily declining over recent decades, so the Government stepped in to change that.

New rules to protect and restore New Zealand’s fresh water came into effect in September 2020. Through these rules the Government aims to improve the quality of the country’s lakes, rivers and streams within a generation.

The rules include a National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, National Environmental Standards for Freshwater, stock exclusion regulations, and updates to the regulations which cover the measurement and reporting of water takes.

So, how does this affect farmers? These regulations brought in a range of specific changes such as fencing waterways, reporting nitrogen use, and changes around intensive winter grazing.

Groundswell NZ’s position statement says that they want the Government’s policy on freshwater to be scrapped. They believe the setting and attaining of freshwater guidelines should fall under catchment groups, in association with regional councils.

Rules to protect and restore NZ’s fresh water came into effect last year. (File photo)

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Rules to protect and restore NZ’s fresh water came into effect last year. (File photo)

What’s the problem with the ‘ute tax’?

The Government’s Clean Car Package has been extensively talked about among the public and media.

The scheme aims to make lower-​carbon-emitting cars more affordable with a subsidy available for those buying cleaner cars – such as electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and even low polluting ordinary internal-combustion vehicles.

But the scheme also puts a penalty on the likes of the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger – two of the top selling cars which are popular among farmers and tradies.

While the protest movement initially began with the freshwater policy, it’s this “ute tax” that became the final straw for farmers facing increasing environmental and regulatory pressures.

The issue farmers have with the scheme is that there is currently no electric alternative available for utes in New Zealand.

“If there is no alternative, the policy is clearly unworkable and merely another financial burden,” Groundswell NZ says.

Roger Small, organiser for the farmers' tractor protest in Timaru.

Valentina Bellomo/Stuff

Roger Small, organiser for the farmers’ tractor protest in Timaru.

The battle for overseas workers

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted Aotearoa in many ways, and the country’s closed border continues to put pressure on workforces, including rural seasonal workers.

The Government has made some border exceptions in this area. In June, it said an additional 200 dairy workers and 50 vets would be allowed to enter the country. However, these numbers did not appear to be enough to fill the gap, with Federated Farmers previously estimating the dairy sector was short between 2000 and 4000 workers.

Groundswell NZ says the rural sector urgently needs contractors, horticulturalists, dairy farmers and fruit-pickers. It wants overseas seasonal rural workers to be given entry as “skilled manual labourers” and prioritised through MIQ to help lift the pressures on farmers and growers.

NZ’s closed border has impacted the amount of seasonal rural workers able to enter the country. (File photo)

CHRIS SKELTON/Stuff

NZ’s closed border has impacted the amount of seasonal rural workers able to enter the country. (File photo)

What’s the Emissions Trading Scheme?

The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme is part of the country’s response to climate change and is the Government’s main tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

New Zealand has made a number of climate change commitments, including international commitments though the Paris Agreement, as well as its own 2050 target and emissions budgets.

In December, the Government declared a climate change emergency. At the time, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the burden for the next generation if action was not taken.

Groundswell NZ’s position statement says: “The unworkable elements of climate-change policy which are crucifying farmers and growers must be withdrawn.”

What are Significant Natural Areas?

Significant natural areas (SNAs) are natural areas that contain indigenous vegetation, fauna or threatened species that are protected as part of ongoing biodiversity efforts.

The Resource Management Act requires that SNAs are protected on both public or private land.

SNAs have become a contentious issue because many indigenous lowland forests and wetlands are on private land, and some land owners see the mapping and identifying of these areas by councils as a “land grab”.

Groundswell NZ wants the regulations to be abandoned or re-written. It would instead like to see funding redirected to “proven systems like the QEII National Trust” – where private land can be voluntarily placed in protection by landowners in partnership with an independent trust.

A Significant Natural Area (SNA) is a natural ecosystem or habitat with significant indigenous biodiversity values.

MARK TAYLOR/Stuff

A Significant Natural Area (SNA) is a natural ecosystem or habitat with significant indigenous biodiversity values.

What’s the issue with indigenous biodiversity?

The Government is looking at ways to reverse the decline of indigenous biodiversity in Aotearoa.

It is mulling a proposed National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity which would set out criteria for councils to identify and protect Significant Natural Areas on private land. This policy is still in a draft state and not yet in effect.

Groundswell NZ believes the draft policy should be scrapped. It says this policy punishes the landowners who have already been proactive in conservation, turns biodiversity “into a liability” and wastes money on box-ticking assessments.

“Councils should be able to work with and support the many landowner initiatives such as landcare and catchment groups and the QEII National Trust. It is essential to protect landowners’ private property rights,” the position statement document states.

What’s the high country legislation?

The Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill is currently making its way through Parliament. It aims to amend previous land acts with a single, broad policy.

The Bill would end the controversial tenure review process, which divides Crown-owned leasehold stations into freehold and conservation land.

Groundswell NZ’s position statement calls this Bill “another big-stick layer of regulation” being applied to high-country farmers, over and above existing council regulations, and says the unnecessary burden “must be lifted”.

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