MP: Tractor protest well worth it

Retiring King Country MP Shane Ardern and wife Cathy in the garden of their home near Te Kiri.
Retiring King Country MP Shane Ardern and wife Cathy in the garden of their home near Te Kiri.

The retiring politician who once drove a tractor up the steps of Parliament would do it all again.

Taranaki-King Country MP Shane Ardern famously gunned the tractor called Myrtle up Parliament's steps in a 2003 protest against the Labour Government's proposed flatulence tax on ruminants. It was later described as the single most effective protest in scuttling what was deemed an idiotic proposal.

Today Ardern is still incensed the Government sacked eminent ruminant scientists conducting research into harnessing methane emission to improve production, even as it was proposing to tax those emissions.

"The scientists were working on something that would potentially overcome the problem, but the Labour Government sacked them because it wanted to introduce a tax on the productive sector that drives the economy of New Zealand.

"It was a lie and it still is a lie. [The proposed tax] was nothing to do with environmental problems. It was about getting extra revenue from the productive sector and it was about wealth redistribution.

"So I joined Federated Farmers' protest. We won - we beat the Government and we still don't have an emissions trading tax."

After the protest, Myrtle became a tractor for Shane and Cathy Ardern's picturesque Te Kiri garden until it was returned to her owner earlier this year. Replacing Myrtle is a tractor once owned by Cathy Ardern's father, the late George Holmes, who sold his 1950 TEA20 Ferguson to collectors.

Cathy Ardern learned to drive on that tractor and Shane Ardern recovered it from a paddock where it was lying derelict and restored it.

He's retiring from Parliament at next year's election because he wants to resume farming.

"You can't afford to be an MP and drive a successful farming business," Ardern says. "My concern is that if you're really focused on business or farming, being able to afford to be an MP is challenging."

The cost of being away from his business was far in excess of his salary as an MP, even though he concedes he's paid well in comparison with the average wage. A search is now beginning for a National candidate to stand in the vast Taranaki-King Country electorate, which will extend from Inglewood to Ngaruawahia under proposed new boundaries.

Ardern hopes a candidate with a farming background will be selected, even though the new boundaries will contain only 6500 farmers among a population of 58,000. His fear is the farming sector may be "under-represented in Wellington".

In retirement, the Arderns intend to expand their farming operation by buying another dairy farm in the Opunake area. Their sons, Jonathan and Cameron, are milking 600 cows on their 216-hectare (196ha effective) farm as variable order sharemilkers.

Reflecting on his parliamentary career of more than 16 years, Ardern is most proud of his involvement in the formation and development of Fonterra. It was established in 2001 when the New Zealand Dairy Board, Waikato's New Zealand Dairy Group and Taranaki-based Kiwi Dairies, of which he was a shareholder, merged.

"It's been a continual process for me. To the consternation of my colleagues, I was vocal about the need to form Fonterra. I was constantly bugging and lobbying for the legislation that allowed Fonterra to be formed."

Ardern was a member of the select committee that drafted the initial 1999 Dairy Industry Restructuring Bill, which failed to get farmer support. After two more attempts, the bill was finally passed.

Fast-forward to 2011 when he chaired the committee that heard amendments to the act. Those amendments made changes around Fonterra's farmgate milk price and allowed the company to proceed with its new capital structure, Trading Among Farmers.

Measured by its growth, its contribution to the New Zealand economy and its development of new markets, Fonterra has been overwhelmingly successful - but his continuing support of the company has not enhanced his career, he says.

His single biggest frustration as an MP advocating for farmers was being unable to encourage New Zealand's meat and wool sector to develop a united marketing structure to enable farmers to extract the premium prices they deserved.

"Ultimately, it's up to farmers to say they're not going to accept as little as 50 per cent of what the market would deliver if they formed marketing structures the way the dairy industry has.

"They're independent businessmen and they have the choice of whether to supply product to an entity that's there to extract as much profit as it can from them or whether to supply one that extracts profit from the marketplace for the farmer."

He's proud that Taranaki is a prosperous province that sustainably offers a good lifestyle and standard of living. He puts that down to the can-do attitude of its political leaders who make decisions based on science and good research.

So he wishes more New Zealanders would take note of scientific logic rather than headline-dominating populist politics. "If the Green Party got their way, the social wellbeing of this country would suffer. In times of low economic growth, people focus on survival and the environment pays the price. Protecting the environment costs money."

Commenting on statements by Green Party energy spokesman Gareth Hughes that the National Government was putting at risk New Zealand's reputation for clean, green and safe food by promoting the expansion of the oil and gas industry on farms, Ardern said the two industries had existed side-by-side in Taranaki for more than 50 years. "There have been no adverse effects and no environmental degradation."

He's also proud of his efforts that led to an apology and an ex gratia payment for the family of army cadet Grant Bain fatally shot at Waiouru in 1981. Ardern said research into the case occupied his office for months, and he was pleased at the positive outcome.

For the future, Ardern plans to spend time with his family and help his two sons become established farmers.

"Once they're secure, who knows?" he says.

Taranaki Daily News