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Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

Last weekend I took my first journey through rural New Zealand since returning from Old Blighty. What a contrast in landscapes. In East Anglia I tired of gazing through train windows at endless hectares of bilious rapeseed crops, hugely subsidised by the EU, never to be manufactured. I was reminded of New Zealand's bad old pre-1984 days, when farmers were paid by taxpayers for sheep to be ground into fertiliser.

But the New Zealand landscape is bold, capricious and energising. I drove from Wellington to New Plymouth on a beautiful warm, early spring day, passing through sweetly preserved settlements like Turakina, where ancient fruit trees, unpruned for decades, are outliving the crumbling cottages whose self-reliant inhabitants they once supplied with fresh produce in summer and full-to-brim Agee jars throughout winter.

Pretty Wanganui, buffed and polished by civic pride, brought back childhood memories of visiting one of my brothers at the Duncan Home where, for eight years, he was treated for polio. Journeying to Wanganui back in the 1950s was a treat - we'd climb the towers on Drurie Hill and collect woolly caterpillars off the mulberry trees in Anderson Park.

And a treat it was for me, last Sunday, to reach New Plymouth. Just like when I worked for 'North & South' magazine and would travel with photographer to visit provincial New Zealand, talking to people, fascinated by their stories, captivated by rural charm, good manners and helpfulness, to the extent of lingering unwisely in front of land agents' windows.

I loved that part of my journalism and I love New Zealand's heartland. But I fear for the futures of these heartland people who told me in no uncertain terms that they have had enough of this Labour Government's overbearing arrogance and intrusion into their lives.

The 'tipping point' (as writer Malcolm Gladwell termed what happens when little things make a big difference) I sense is near. And what has upset the balance? Undoubtedly the final straw for some is the foreshore and seabed issue. At the heart of every New Zealanders' psyche - the glue that binds us irrevocably to this crazy country - is knowing we can, at any time we like, rich or poor, young or old, dying or in rude health, go to a beach.

While Helen Clark flounders around trying to find a solution among the spin which will satisfy Maori - who now, understandably, think they could be entitled to huge bounty - and keep non-Maori happy, the country talks itself into angst. Will Labour allow Maori to prohibit non-Maori aquaculture farmers from commercially growing mussels and oysters? Will National allow the Crown to expropriate the property rights of those landowners - Maori or non-Maori - whose private property has been eroded by high tides and now forms part of the foreshore?

For ACT, this is a property rights issue, not an ethnic issue. Not unless the Government makes it a race-based issue.

But that's not the only complaint Taranaki folk have. The farmers are revolting. They're thinking seriously about another tractors-to-Wellington demonstration. Flatulence tax stinks. As one woman, a dairy farmer, told me: "The changes the Government is forcing on us are impacting severely. We've been ordered to put underpasses in. We did that and they cost $80,000 each. But that's okay, we can wear that. The Government took our carbon credits with the Climate Change Response Bill because they signed Kyoto. We had to accept that. But on top of everything else they're taxing us on sheep and cattle.

"It's an arrogant, city-slicker approach: government is saying, 'we're taking this money and we're going to do research'. Well we're already paying for research. Farmers are expected to be not seen or heard any more. "

This country ignores farmers at its peril. It's time to send a message to this government. New Zealand is being forced into a straightjacket and kiwis - bold, capricious and energising folk like the land they love and make their living from - are fed up. They're not mental. They're not dangerous. They're not hurting anyone. Government should leave them alone.

One of the stated aims of the Wolfson Press Fellowship is to take mid-career journalists, place them in a multi-national college within academia, and allow them to research whatever they like so they become a better person. The objective is that they then return to their own part of the world and in some small way make that part of the world a better place.

I think that's a very noble aim. My research gave me evidence that the state doesn't have to control every single thing we do - from choosing our children's schools to grabbing our money and doing our research for us. I can see the sort of society I want to live in and it's not too different from what we once had.

Heartland values. A sense of justice, fair play, tolerance, help thy neighbour and family but mind your own business. Here's to New Plymouth, and all who live in her.

Yours in liberty,

Deborah Coddington.

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