Waikato region's economy risks destruction without robust science

The folly of not listening to outspoken people on all sides of the water quality debate risks division.
DOMINICO ZAPATA/FAIRFAX NZ

The folly of not listening to outspoken people on all sides of the water quality debate risks division.

OPINION: 

Constructive dialogue is what's needed on the Healthy Rivers Plan Change 1, and all sides deserve a say.

On that front, some people misinterpreted what I was meaning with one of my comments about town hall meetings in a previous column.

I have received plenty of advice during debates on environmental issues in the last few years. One useful tip came from a person with legal expertise – "A good advocate/lawyer can argue both sides of the case."

READ MORE: Politicians should listen, or expect a rural backlash
Waikato rivers plan divides farmers

While I have been Federated Farmers' Waikato president I have been to a lot of farming forums, but also I have spoken to the green groups.

That has involved arguing the issues in the old school debate system, but also slipping in at the back of the room to listen to their discussions and hear what issues are raised.

And they have raised some good points, most of which the agriculture industry already knows about and is looking for solutions to. On some issues we have already put practical solutions into play, but not communicated them very well to the wider community.

I have also heard from people in these community hall meetings who make the point they were born on a farm 40 years ago.

They describe all the issues that were around then and say we currently need to lift our game. Some were ex-farmers who sold their farms or had work on one 10 years ago.

Even in the last 5-10 years plenty has changed; modern farming practices keep evolving on New Zealand farms for the better. That's why we are internationally respected for what we do.

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We all know there are some laggards; they exist in all industries and jobs - but they aren't the majority.

I hear all this factual comment based on a couple of farmers who have made headlines for the wrong reasons. There are strident calls to bring in tougher punishment and rules, based on some of these discussions. It gets bloody hard to stay silent and say nothing.

I have learned from sitting at various meetings that the green groups are getting well organised and unified on the issues as they see them. They fire a few bullets and generally hit a target.

From their experience from many other plan changes around the country, they are well versed on how to do these things, with experience in environmental law in the Courts.

So the lesson for the farming industry, elected councillors and green groups is: Learn to listen. Their region will inevitably contain people with many different views of the world. The folly of dismissing these outspoken people risks division.

People who genuinely believe in alternative views do so in good faith. History is littered with examples that more often than not demonstrate that alternative but well-reasoned views often have considerable merit.

Everyone, farmers included, want good water quality. But our region's economic wellbeing will risk self-destruction if we don't follow debate rooted in robust, practical science and understanding. The Waikato community needs to have the debates and decide themselves what the issues and acceptable solutions are. This is their plan.

The long term economic modelling demonstrates the potential consequences of current proposals in terms of losses in regional income, job losses in both urban and rural areas, and the destruction of the economies of provincial townships. This prediction cannot be dismissed.

A look southward to the Horizons One Plan demonstrates that even that hardline council now recognises that if fully implemented, their original One Plan design would have led to economic suicide for that region.

  • Chris Lewis is Federated Farmers Waikato president.

 - Stuff

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