Taxing farmers 'into oblivion' will only set the environment back, says Steven Joyce
National and Labour are at loggerheads over a water tax, with the Government saying Labour's plans could see water quality going backwards because farmers would be too broke to invest in it.
But Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has hit back, saying his figures are "patently wrong" and called on National to offer its solution.
Labour announced it would charge a "royalty fee" on water bottlers and farmers using irrigation, but it would not reveal a set amount for the tax until after the election.
The policy has been met with alarm from rural sectors and a number of political parties, however it had the support of the Green Party.
National campaign manager Steven Joyce told TVNZ's Q+A on Sunday, it would make regions poorer and their environmental outcomes would suffer.
* Ask NZ's politicians your questions in our election debates
* Farmers would pay to irrigate under Labour's freshwater policy
* Canterbury would bear brunt of Labour's water tax - industry
* Bold action needed on freshwater quality, NZ farming leaders say
"What we don't want to do is actually tax these regions to effectively make them poorer, because there is no part of the world where there is a poor country that does a good job with its environment."
It was unfair to pick on the dairy industry alone, he said, because there also big problems in urban waterways. He added that Labour was being "very quiet" about urban water quality, "because they don't want to upset consumers".
Ardern said she was willing to show leadership on the issue, which National had not tackled in its nine years in Government.
"We are responding to a problem that unfortunately the Government hasn't tackled. We're staring down the barrel of rivers becoming increasingly unusable."
Joyce defended the National Government's focus on dairy, rejecting that it came at the expense of the environment.
"Absolutely not. Nobody can argue that, because we're putting in this National Policy Statement, we're requiring people to measure their water use and control their water use.
"And, we've also got the farmers fencing off all their waterways."
He said in many cases, irrigation schemes approved under the current Government had a requirement to heavily control nitrate leachate.
"The irrigation projects were required to get through RMA, which has stringent requirements around the environment and in most cases, improved water quality - probably all cases.
It was unfair to pick on the dairy industry alone, because there also big problems in urban waterways, but Labour was being "very quiet" about urban water quality, "because they don't want to upset consumers".
He rejected farmers weren't paying their fair share.
"But let's go there, just say we'll tax these people so their incomes will drop so that they can't afford to change the way that they farm - this is a good idea?" he said.
"It's a crazy thing - if you want these people to have the ability to change their farm systems, to invest in fencing off the waterways and all these things, then don't try and tax them into oblivion - it's crazy.
"Yes, it's the Left's approach; if it moves, tax it. But as I say, the New Zealand economy is performing well, we've got many steps in place to improve our environment and the way we afford those thing - for example our electric vehicles we announced just yesterday - is to be wealthy enough to make those changes."
Ardern said Labour had given a "sense of scale" on what tax it would apply, but it would not make a move before consulting first.
"We've given a sense of that scale, in the realm of a few cents per 1000 litres, but what I also still want to make clear, is that we've given a guarantee that we'll sit around the table with those affected to make sure that what we do is workable," she said.
"The Government themselves have acknowledged the issue with water bottling, and the issue with water use. They've sent it to a technical group who aren't going to tell the public what they've decided until December."
In the same Q+A interview, Labour's spokesman for water David Parker conceded that those living in the cities - enjoying a certain standard of living - were reliant on the productivity of the rural sector; "we all are".
But he rubbished Joyce's comments as "scaremongering" and said the tax figure Joyce was using was incorrect.
"Farmers, as opposed to water bottlers, we've said one or two cents per thousand litres.
"If you wanted me to put a cent figure on it, I'd say two rather than one," he told Q+A.
Parker rejected Joyce's suggestion that Labour's tax could sting individual farmers to the tune of $50,000 to $100,000 per year.
"It would be about $100 million across the whole of the country, which is incidentally what [Environment Minister] Nick Smith says we need to spend every year for the next 23 years to clean up our waterways.
"The level of scaremongering on this will make Donald Trump blush."
If there was a cost of cleaning up New Zealand's rivers, it should be born by the largest polluters, he said.
"Who should pay that? Should we tax pensioners or working people, Or should the farmers who are polluting make a contribution?"
Parker said cities had massively cleaned up their waterways, whereas farmers were one of the biggest culprits of pollution.
Labour was not seeking to penalise farmers.
"We're saying that they should make a small contribution to the clean-up of our rivers so that they, and you, and your children and I can swim in our local rivers in summer."
Comments on this article have now closed