Minister's meddling fuels One Plan hysteria among farmers

JON MORGAN

Last updated 15:58 22/11/2012

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OPINION: Think about this. A district court judge has sentenced a man to five years' jail on fraud charges. He has appealed to the High Court, saying the sentence is excessive.

But before the appeal can be heard, the finance minister comments that he agrees the man has been harshly treated and releases research that shows the fraud isn't as serious as claimed by the police.

I know, this is a ridiculous scenario. It would never happen. No politican would be so unwise as to attempt to interfere so blatantly in the judicial process.

All right. Think about this.

An Environment Court judge has set rules a regional council must follow to keep farm pollution out of rivers. Two farmer organisations have appealed to the High Court, saying the rules will cause too much harm.

But before the appeal can be heard, the primary industries minister comments that he agrees the rules are too harsh and releases research that purports to show the financial harm to farmers will be worse than the court thinks.

This has actually happened, but there has been no outcry.

I don't know, maybe I'm mistaken and the Environment Court is some sort of minor judicial body that doesn't have to be treated with respect - like the Waitangi Tribunal.

All I do know is that minister David Carter's meddling has added fuel to the hysteria boiling around the issue in the Manawatu-Whanganui region.

Federated Farmers is stirring as hard as it can. Labelling the regional One Plan "Farmergeddon", it has pounced on the ministry's research, saying it bears out all it has been saying.

At first glance, it looks bad - a fall in farming revenue of 22-43 per cent. But I'm told there are a couple of flaws. The basic figure the researchers have used for the amount of nitrogen to be taken out of the system by the One Plan is 50 per cent more than the council's figure. And it is based on a 10-year timeframe when the council's plan is to reduce leaching over 20 years.

Maybe it's an unintended consequence of over-exuberance by the minister, but the impression left is one of arrogance, that somehow the Government is above the law and that nothing must be allowed to get in the way of the drive to repair the economy. But fear of a wave of financial disaster sweeping over the dairy industry in the wake of the One Plan, and others like it, is misplaced.

It's clear the Environment Court has gone much further than the Government would have wanted it to and the result of the appeal will be anxiously awaited.

Advice to the Government will be that nothing is likely to change. The appeal can be only on points of law. Only the original parties before the Environment Court can be part of the appeal and it is significant that one of these, the conservation minister, has not taken up that option. It smacks of Cabinet pressure.

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I can understand Carter's frustration, but he and his ministry have only themselves to blame for not being at the appeal. They kept out of the Environment Court and now are reducd to sniping from the sidelines.

There's a human element in all this that should not be forgotten. If the One Plan is to be taken to its extremes, farmers will be forced off the land. The Feds have been playing this up, and have given the example of a North Wairarapa organic dairy farmer who has done all he can - fenced his streams, planted riparian strips, has low cow numbers, doesn't use nitrogen - but still won't meet the One Plan's leaching levels.

I've spoken to this farmer, who was worried he would have to give up his farm at a time when controversy over the One Plan has turned off purchasers. If he couldn't meet the rules then neither could 90 per cent of his catchment, he said.

So I rang the regional council chairman, Bruce Gordon, a Rangitikei cropping farmer.

He is adamant no one will be forced off their land, and that no one will be forced to reduce production. "We want to work with farmers on this," he told me, "making sure they are using best farm practice and, if need be, allowing them to farm under a restricted discretionary consent until science catches up with the court decision."

Farmers will be given time to meet the conditions, "and if it is still too hard for them we'll make some tweaks to the One Plan".

So, it appears nothing is graven in stone and the council, far from being the ogre the Feds would have us believe, is not going to let the farmers down. I told the farmer this and he was relieved to hear it, to put it mildly.

But why did I have to be the one to put his mind at rest?

- The Dominion Post

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