Gordon Campbell on the whining vocal minority of farmers, plus the weekly playlist

83b173324c0b2086634cGranted, working on the land can be a lonely job and the weather can be a bitch… But speaking in general, what have farmers got to complain about? A lot of other Kiwis need to worry about finding a place to live, making rent, feeding their kids and keeping their jobs. Many would gladly embrace the alleged plight of the farming sector. In fact, the headlines of late have been all about how remarkably healthy/wealthy the outlook is for NZ dairy farmers. Since May, Fonterra has been forecasting a near-record payout in October to dairy farmers at levels unseen since 2013/14.

The spending power from this mega multi-billion payout is likely to be felt all over New Zealand, including in poorer regions of the country. Last month, the Northern Advocate newspaper headlined a likely $787 million payout to Northland dairy farmers alone. Dairy aside, what about sheep and beef farmers? After some gloomy forecasts last December in the wake of the pandemic, Rabobank CEO Todd Charteris had this to say in late June:

The outlook for beef pricing improved, as a result of reduced competition from Australia, while sheep meat exports were expected to remain firm over the coming months due to expected ongoing strong demand from key markets.

Not surprisingly – in the light of the bright outlook for farm incomes – Rabobank latest survey has found that farmer confidence is on the rise:

After returning to net positive territory in the first quarter of 2021…. farmer confidence continued its ascent with the overall reading inching upwards to +13 per cent, from +10 per cent previously. The latest survey, completed earlier this month, found the number of farmers expecting the rural economy to improve in the next 12 months increased to 32 per cent (from 29 per cent last quarter), while the number expecting the rural economy to worsen remained at 19 per cent. A total of 50 per cent were expecting similar conditions (down from 53 per cent).

In other words, a total of 82% of farmers expect the agricultural economy to either improve over the coming 12 months, or stay in its current sweet spot. Even so, the government has been listening (unduly?) to the protests emanating from a vocal minority within the farming sector. In recently released discussion documents, the Environment Ministry has proposed easing its originally proposed freshwater regulations – which had been developed in consultation with the farming sector – and may now impose less stringent requirements on farmers to fence stock off from waterways.

Such a backdown would be unmerited. The public support for the original freshwater regulations had been sky high. New Zealanders have watched on with dismay as dairy farming has polluted the nation’s once pristine (and no longer swimmable) rivers, lakes and streams. An Environment Ministry report found that 95-99% of rivers by length in urban, pastoral, and exotic forests exceed water quality guidelines. In addition, there has been evidence for some years that the nitrate levels in drinking water ( largely generated by the fertilisers used in farming) are posing a serious health risk. This includes posing a danger to pregnant women and babies, even in the wake of only a brief period of exposure to risk. Recent studies have confirmed the threat:

New research shows a strong link between nitrate in drinking water and babies being born underweight or prematurely… Much lower levels of the chemical than were previously thought to be safe could be responsible for mothers giving birth early, potentially leading to cerebral palsy, eyesight and hearing loss, or psychiatric disorders. Otago University analysis was of two overseas studies released this year including one involving 1.4 million Californian babies, born over a 10-year period. This showed the chances of a premature birth increased by 47 per cent when nitrates in drinking water were just 5 milligrams per litre of water. This was less than half the current safe level in New Zealand, of 11.3 milligrams.

Otago university’s Dr Tim Chambers has noted that the chances of something going wrong went up by two and a half times when the levels reached 10 milligrams, a figure that’s still less than the safe level that is permitted under the existing (obviously lax) New Zealand regulations. “The thing that’s quite concerning about adverse birth outcomes is the length of exposure is relatively short. I mean, it’s just pre-natal exposure. So it’s less than a year exposure, and the outcome that happens has lifelong impacts.”
Beyond the health and quality of life impacts, the economic cost alone of this farm-induced poisoning of the public is considerable :

It had been shown the life-long economic burden attached to premature births was $90,000, made up of medical bills and lost earnings. With 4400 pre-term births in this country annually, they were costing the country $396 million a year.

What is the answer ? Obviously, far more stringent regulation of the nitrate levels in our water supply. Those most at risk – ie women – are being urged to press for water testing, for greater regulation and fare being advised to resort to using bottled water during pregnancy:
With 138,000 New Zealanders drinking water with nitrates at five milligrams or above, within the danger zone for adverse birth outcomes, the findings deserved serious consideration by health authorities here, Dr Chambers said….“From a public health point of view, we would take a precautionary approach and make sure that we could try and have a lower limit, or at least aim to have our nitrate levels much lower than they currently are.”

In short, our economic dependency on farming as it is currently practiced is both dangerous and unsustainable. The current extents of methane emissions, waterways pollution, and nitrates poisoning are all indefensible. They are harmful both to the environment, and to public health. To their credit, some farmers realise this, and are changing their ways. But these worthy efforts are being under-mined by the concessions being demanded and delivered. We all stand to suffer if and whenever the Ardern government bends to the foot-dragging minority.

That minority has to be seen for what it is. Basically, some members of one of the most affluent sectors of society are trying to play the victim card, and portray themselves as a persecuted minority. To that end, they’re willing to protest on Friday with their tractors and dogs. All in order to defend their utes, and their right to pollute.

Groundswell or ground swill?

According to the group called Groundswell NZ – which is orchestrating Friday’s protests around the country – they’re standing up for “farmers, growers and ute owners who are fed up with increasing government interference in your life and business, unworkable regulations:
[Groundswell NZ spokesperson] Bryce McKenzie says farmers are frustrated by new government regulations. He says they are facing new freshwater regulations, winter grazing rules and indigenous biodiversity regulations.

The Groundswell NZ group first came to prominence last October, when it organised a tractor protest in Gore. More than 100 tractors were driven down the town’s main street to protest against new regulations, aimed at preventing the environmental damage caused by intensive winter grazing. Far from being a “groundswell” that enjoys wide public support, there is evidence that the group does not speak for even Southland farmers, let alone for farmers nationwide:

This week’s first aerial compliance inspection confirmed farmers have prepared well for winter grazing. Environment Southland chief executive Rob Phillips said this flight focused largely on the Mataura and upper Oreti catchments, and only three landowners were identified as potentially having some issues that need a closer look on-farm. “I’m really pleased with what the team has seen. These flights help to reinforce that what’s being seen from the road isn’t always reflective of a breach of rules or environmental damage. Farmers are working hard and understanding the situation, and making a real effort to improve things. This sustained improvement is something that Southland as a whole can be proud of.”

Far from treating the new winter grazing regs as being intolerably burdensome, the majority of Southland farmers seem to be quietly – and voluntarily – complying with them. Presumably, that’s because many of them can see these winter grazing regulations as working in their own long term interests, by preventing avoidable environmental damage. Given that this was Groundswell NZ’s founding issue, you have to ask : what, exactly, qualifies this group to pose as the representatives of farmer opinion, nationwide? They have no credible mandate to do so: only a few media-friendly tractors and dogs at Parliament, and an unearned chip -on-shoulder sense of grievance.

Oh, but what about the dreaded “ute tax?” It is a term that the media has readily embraced and promoted. Groundswell NZ has been deeply upset about the government’s attempt to foster a price difference between vehicles that emit harmful emissions, and those that don’t. The government’s aim has been to make the already pricey (and environmentally kinder) vehicle a bit more affordable, while penalising future re-purchases of the older, emissions-spouting kind of vehicle.

Keep in mind that – in the light of those booming export prices mentioned earlier – dairy farmers are maybe the best placed group in society able to afford to buy the newer emissions reducing vehicles. Not to mention that farmers are also readily able to afford the relatively small price penalty facing those farmers hellbent in future on replacing their current ute with the same environmentally damaging kind of vehicle. Regardless, Groundswell NZ is treating this issue as a grievous blow to the agricultural sector. Spare me.

The other dimension to all his bleating about the “ute tax” is that far from being an onerous fresh tax, the lax treatment of utes has, in fact, been something of a fringe benefit tax rort for ages :

Owners of double-cab utes famously pay very little fringe benefit tax (FBT), which is designed to make sure that employees pay tax on their work perks such as using a work car for personal use….[Revenue Minister David] Parker said the advice from IRD was that double-cab ute owners weren’t exempt from paying FBT, despite a popular belief that there was an exemption in place. Instead, IRD thinks the existing rules aren’t being properly enforced.

As utes proliferate, it makes sense – even if only as a token gesture towards a more consistent climate change policy – to rectify this situation. Parker again :

“The advice I have is there isn’t actually an exemption for double-cab utes, the question is whether the existing rules are being properly enforced,” Parker said.Parker said IRD was not keen on chasing down the double-cab ute owners’ taxes because it would not bring in much money. However, he pointed to the Government’s climate-change policies and the “proliferation” of the utes as a reason for a clampdown.

Try as I might, I can’t see this relatively minor move to implement the existing tax rules as being the heinous action of a socialist dictatorship. Most ordinary New Zealanders don’t qualify for fringe benefit tax write-offs. They support actions that promote climate change. Frankly, if this fringe benefit loophole regarding utes was located in the benefit system, the moves to close it would be being applauded as a crackdown on benefit fraud.

National on the ropes

So if there’s no groundswell – this is a top down protest movement – and if the dubiously packaged “Groundswell NZ” group has no genuine mandate to speak for farmers… why is National Party leader Judith Collins cheering them on so keenly ? Well, for months now, Collins has been bottom trawling the political waters, and trying to sweep up (into National’s net) every single New Zealander who feels a sense of grievance about their lot. In the process, she has merely added farmers to the list of people allegedly being “cancelled” and “shut down” by a vast (and imaginary) army of all-powerful liberal elitists. Given how much the political right like to regard themselves as rugged individualists, they look more like a decidedly wimpy bunch these days. Why, when they cast racial slurs and make sexist jokes, some people are being just so mean to them.

Where the likes of Collins see free speech being suppressed, most of us see (and welcome) a long overdue contest in the marketplace of ideas. By and large, most of the people who are now alleging they are being “ shut down” are having their point of view being contested for the very first time. and they don’t like it. Moreover, when they can’t manage to marshal a plausible defence of views that they hitherto took for granted, they’re wailing about being “shut down”. Tough. Now they know a little of what many Maori for instance, have felt for years. In reality, most of us welcome the advent of a more nuanced and critical debate about our history.

Amusingly though, the same people who are most keen on suppressing that debate also tend to be the self-declared defenders of free speech. In the name of free speech, they wish to suppress any discussion of structural racism – which they deny – or climate change – which they also tend to deny. In the new school curriculum, they also want to forbid any talk about the ongoing effects of our colonial past, or whether the history of colonial impact has been entirely beneficial for everyone. To repeat: most New Zealanders are not running away in fear from the prospect of having any long-held assumptions about such issues being laid open to challenge.

Much as this may surprise the folks at Groundswell NZ, most of us do not look at Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson and see a couple of jackbooted tyrants. Call me insensitive, but IMO, it seems a bit unreasonable for farmers to demand that any policies to address climate change (and water quality) must be made utterly pain free, and entirely cost free for them before they will even consider changing their ways. By and large, it has been dairy farmers who have created (and vastly profited from) the problems that ordinary taxpayers are now having to live with, and/or pay to clean up. At the very least, farmers should stop whining about being asked to chip in to help meet the cost of the solutions.

This week’s playlist

There’s no overall theme to this week’s playlist, which has a few oldies mixed in with the new releases. Betty Hall Jones and Shorty Long (not the Motown singer of the same name) both date from the late 1940s to early 1950s. Cecil Gant, the so-called Singing Marine got his breakthrough hit “ I Wonder” after singing at a war bond rally in 1944. A string of fine r&b piano rockers followed before Gant’s death in 1951, aged 37, from alcoholism. His timeless “ Don’t You Worry” was released posthumously.

Of the new releases, Nandi Rose Plunkett, who records as Half Waif, used to be part of the ill-fated indie band Pinegrove. Beautiful voice, interesting writer – and this track is from the new Half Waif album Mythopoetics. In case you’re wondering ( and worrying) about how quickly the style cycles are turning these days, the new “ Prelude” track by Alicia Walter suggests that its already time for an Animal Collective revival. Really. The pulse of the song sounds exactly like what Geologist used to supply on so many great AC tracks in the mid 2000s, and there’s the same wild campfire singalong/clapalong spirit to the vocals. In no time, “Prelude” will take you back again to the likes of AC’s “ Banshee Beat” and “Peacebone” Good times.

Talking of pulses “Nuestra Forma” is by an Argentinian duo that keeps the dance groove going, while leaning into the moody sensuality. Mdou Moctar is from the desert region of Niger, and the lovely “Anar” was his breakthrough recording. Low are a band that’s always easy to overlook. This excellent new song has three phases: the intro, the white noise core and the almost ambient aftermath. Here’s the playlist.