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Q+A: Minister David Parker interviewed by Corin Dann

Q+A: Minister David Parker interviewed by Corin Dann

Environment Minister warns regulation is on the way for farmers not willing to change practises voluntarily as the government moves to clean up waterways.

‘So there are some people who are in denial. Now, those people will have to be regulated to do the right thing, because they may not be willing to do it voluntarily. That’s the purpose of environmental regulation.’

Environment Minister David Parker told TVNZ 1’s Q+A programme that in some parts of New Zealand cow numbers may have to be cut.

‘Well, cow numbers have already peaked and are going down, but yes, in some areas, the number of cows per hectare is higher than the environment can sustain. That won’t be done through a raw cap on cow numbers; it will be done on nutrient limits, the amount of nutrient that can be lost from a farm to a waterway, because it’s not just a dairy cow issue.’

When asked what the economic impact for some, particularly dairying regions would be, the Minister said, ‘We haven’t done an analysis of what the economic effects would be. But it’s very, very difficult to model, because second-best from the farmer perspective may still be very close to the same outcome profit-wise. Can I go back to what I was saying that I think one of the answers to this in south Canterbury, for example, lies in land use change towards more cropping, more horticulture, which are high-value land uses.’

The Minister stressed, ‘We’re actually not going to subsidise land use change, but we will enable it through the new technologies that we are willing to subsidise to bring forward.’

Q + A
Episode 8
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

CORIN Well, one group, of course, that could also be protesting this term is farmers. Labour is promising a much tougher line with farmers on water quality, not to mention greenhouse gas emissions. Well, for more on this, I’m joined by the Environment Minister David Parker. Good morning to you.

DAVID Good morning.

CORIN You did promise a lot, in Opposition, on water and on cleaning up our rivers, making them swimmable. Will you deliver on that?

DAVID Most certainly. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to fight for environmental causes. This is my last time through cabinet, and I’ll have failed as a politician if I don’t use my position now to stop this getting…

CORIN So, what does success look like?

DAVID Success, in the short term, looks like stopping the degradation getting worse everywhere; within five years, having measureable improvements; and then, over the succeeding generation, getting back to where we used to be.

CORIN So an admirable goal, but the question is — how will you do it? Now, you have a— you’ve talked about beefing up the current guidelines, the national policy statement on water. How far will you go? And I guess the key question is here — will you cap the number of cows that can be in a certain paddock, depending on nutrient levels? In other words, potentially force farmers to destock?

DAVID Well, cow numbers have already peaked and are going down, but yes, in some areas, the number of cows per hectare is higher than the environment can sustain. That won’t be done through a raw cap on cow numbers; it will be done on nutrient limits, the amount of nutrient that can be lost from a farm to a waterway, because it’s not just a dairy cow issue.

CORIN But it will have the same effect, though, won’t it?

DAVID In some areas, it will. I mean, that’s one of the really difficult issues that we’ve got work being done on at the moment by both my own ministry, but the Land and Water Forum and various NGOs. How do you allocate the right to discharge nutrient where you’ve got more than the environment can sustain between those who are currently doing it and those who want to do it with undeveloped land?

CORIN The issue is, though, you’ve got— in order to get your goal, of, you know, swimmable rivers in the summers and the dream that you want, you’re going to have to force some farmers in some areas, depending on those conditions, to destock. Now, does that open up you do legal action? Do they get compensation?

DAVID No, you don’t compensate people for stopping pollution. Just because you could pollute last year doesn’t mean to say you should be allowed to do it or paid to stop doing it. Landcorp’s an interesting case in point. In recent years, they’ve stopped using PKE, palm kernel, imported from overseas, which enabled them to intensify their land use. They found that the economics of it aren’t much different with a slightly less intensive farm methodology without the PKE. Those will be the sorts of things— More particularly, this is where it integrates with my Economic Development portfolio. You need long-term solutions here, and you need to be increasing the value of what it is that we produce from the land. Some of that lies within the dairy industry, for example, moving from volume to value, and they are. But some of it relies upon changing land use to things that are currently too expensive in New Zealand because we’ve got—

CORIN This is a massive signal. This is like your oil and gas. This is you saying to the farming sector, ‘You cannot continue with some of your practices in dairying, and we will force you to have less cows.’ What work have you done to look at what the economic impact of that would be? Because we know if there’s a drought, for example, and milk production goes down a couple of percent, it takes off a percent off GDP.

DAVID Mm. Well, I think the Landcorp example is illustrative that it’s not the end of the world for dairying.

CORIN Have you done the work that shows what the economic impact for some, particularly dairying regions, would be?

DAVID We haven’t done an analysis of what the economic effects would be. But it’s very, very difficult to model, because second-best from the farmer perspective may still be very close to the same outcome profit-wise. Can I go back to what I was saying that I think one of the answers to this in south Canterbury, for example, lies in land use change towards more cropping, more horticulture, which are high-value land uses. And the reason they don’t currently happen is that we’ve got high labour costs in New Zealand, because we are a relatively low wage economy compared with some other parts of the world, which is a fantastic thing, and we actually want more of that. Why is it in Central Otago where we grow the best apricots in the world, we’re not growing apricots and we import those rubber bullets from overseas? It’s because we’ve got a labour-cost disadvantage. And this is where my Economic Development portfolio’s important and the Provincial Growth Fund, because we’re going to be bringing forward robotics.

CORIN So you’ll incentivise them? You’ll encourage them to change their farming?

DAVID We’re actually not going to subsidise land use change, but we will enable it through the new technologies that we are willing to subsidise to bring forward. So, for example, we’ve got sensors, positioning systems, robotics. Bringing them to bear with our fantastic plant breeding skills—

CORIN That’s great, and I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

DAVID It’s part of the answer.

CORIN But how are you going to make farmers change if they don’t want to?

DAVID Well, the economics will drive that change where there is a high-value land use. Where economics don’t, regulation will. There’s only three— We can’t change the past; we can only change the future.

CORIN When will we see that regulation?

DAVID There’s only— Can I just—? There’s only three ways to change behaviour — education, regulation and price. Through that, you deploy new technologies, but of those, an environmental policy regulation is the most important, and you do that under the RMA, through a national policy statement, which directs regional councils what they’ve got to do.

CORIN And at the moment, you’re saying to those regional— it says to those regional councils, by 2025 or 2030, they’ve got to have their water plans in place. Will you speed that up?

DAVID Well, we’re going to— The new National Policy Statement that we’ll bring forward will do a couple of things. One, it’ll say increases in land use intensity will no longer be a permitted activity anywhere in the country. Already that’s the case in some parts of the country, but it’s not true everywhere. It will also bring forward a methodology for the allocation of nutrient, where you’ve got nutrient-enriched catchments. How do you do fairness between undeveloped landholders and existing people who’ve got capital expenditure based on their nutrient input whilst meeting the environmental objective?

CORIN When you add up these things, you’ve got much tougher restrictions on water quality for farmers, which could cost them — some farmers in some areas. You’re also looking at putting farmers in the Emissions Trading Scheme on greenhouse gases.

DAVID Only for 5% of their emissions.

CORIN Well, it’s a start. You’ve also looked at the issue of irrigation in terms of government support for big projects — that’s been cut. Oil and gas for Taranaki. You’re hammering the regions here. How can you continue to do this?

DAVID Yeah, I— Look, part of this is about money, and I think we’ve already proven with what we did when we were last in government with electricity that getting to a cleaner future isn’t necessarily more expensive than the way we do things at the moment, so long as you have a gradual transition. Stopping things getting worse doesn’t cost anything. Reversing some of the environmental damage does require changes in behaviour over time. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for New Zealanders to expect that their rivers in summer are clean enough to swim in, put their head under without getting crook.

CORIN You’re quite fired up about this. I mean, reading some of your quotes — you’ve basically said, according to Richard Harman’s website, he’s says— you’re quoted as saying that you would— ‘Someone has to make this decision, and I’m prepared to do that— be that person, even if I can’t get a collaborative outcome.’ In other words, if farmers don’t agree, you’re going to push on and do it anyway.

DAVID We’ve never been able to get a complete consensus in respect of these difficult issues across any environmental issue.

CORIN And you’re the man to do it.

DAVID We fought an election on this issue. We’ve got a representative democracy. We’ve won the political battle. Now it’s about implementation. Most of the farming sector agree with that. There is the occasional outlier. One of the Federated Farmers heads from the Wairarapa during the last election denied that dairy farming caused pollution of rivers. So there are some people who are in denial. Now, those people will have to be regulated to do the right thing, because they may not be willing to do it voluntarily. That’s the purpose of environmental regulation.

CORIN Will you step in, in the Mackenzie Basin? Because I know there’s a petition from Greenpeace at the moment. It’s been a long battle — 10 years — for intensive dairy farming in high country, pristine Mackenzie Basin. It must be dear to your heart. You know that region. Will you stop it? You’ve got the power.

DAVID That’s actually a landscape issue more than a water quality issue up there. And what’s gone wrong up there has some poor outcomes in tenure review after the last National government reversed what we had done when in government, which is to stop—

CORIN But you could stop it. You could bring in an RMA change. You could stop it.

DAVID Not easily.

CORIN Do you want to?

DAVID I think we should be protecting the landscape of the Mackenzie Basin. It’s sort of— Lake ‘Cake Tin Lid’ is what people come to see New Zealand for. They’re interested in landscapes, and I think those changing landscapes worry me.

CORIN So you don’t want to see any more intensification of dairying up in that region?

DAVID I don’t want to see extensive landscape change. You know, I love those landscapes. And the government owns a lot of that land and leases it to farmers under pastoral leases. And the Labour Party policy, going into the last election, is we should stop tenure review.

CORIN Will you stop tenure review?

DAVID Well, that’s a decision that’s being worked through at the moment. It’s being led by Eugenie Sage. We haven’t yet taken that decision, but that was our policy at the last election.

CORIN These are some big calls for regional New Zealand. Have you got New Zealand First on board with what you want to do with water quality? They were the ones who forced you to can the water tax. Have they agreed to your demands in terms of what you want to do in regulating water quality?

DAVID Absolutely. They recognise that our degrading rivers are a problem. They don’t like that either. Where they are strong is that they want us, for example, this horticultural transition that we need in parts of our country, which will make us a wealthier country, they’ve pointed out that we do need small water schemes. Now, we’ve canned the big ones that were going to increase the intensity of ruminant agriculture, which is the main cause of the problem. But they’ve said, and they’re right, that there is a case for smaller water schemes in areas where—

CORIN So Shane Jones could get the chequebook out for them?

DAVID Yeah, in respect to some of the smaller schemes, yes, but I’ve made the point that not if it’s going to increase the intensity of ruminant agriculture, because then you don’t achieve the environment—

CORIN Have we really got a problem here? Because there was a report out from National— from Land, Air, Water Aotearoa saying that water seems to be getting better in our rivers.

DAVID There are some rivers that are getting better; there are some that are still getting worse. I think it’s— It’s true that rivers that I used to swim in as a child — and I still swim in our rivers — are a lot dirtier than when I used to as a kid, and that’s not good enough.

CORIN Okay, a couple of quick things. Genetic modification — this issue, the Environmental Protection Agency says there’s been no leadership on this issue, that trials of rye grass could help with methane emissions and these types of things have had to go overseas because of our laws. Where do you sit on this issue? Will you help farmers by taking some leadership to give them the tools and some new biotechnology that could work?

DAVID Well, there are new cultivars coming forward, which are already helping in that. There’s a form of plantain, which has been bred using conventional means. It’s got a lower roots— deeper root zone, and it absorbs nitrogen well, and it’s really good in wet conditions. Now, those sorts of technologies are coming forward. We haven’t needed GM for it. If people do want to pursue GM outcomes, they can do under our law. They can do the trials in New Zealand.

CORIN There’s a lot of science denial — that’s what the EPA’s saying, and there’s a lot of lack of leadership. Would you step into that?

DAVID I think where New Zealand will put its toe in the water as to where we should go on GM will actually relate to pest eradication rather than agricultural crops. In my assessment, that’s where it will start. I’m willing to have a look at that issue, but through the existing regulatory regime that we’ve already got.

CORIN If we move on to trade quickly. How disappointed are you that the United States did not give New Zealand an exemption on the steel tariffs?

DAVID Very. It’s hard to fathom the reasoning of who has and who hasn’t got exemptions as yet. It’s also hard to know how real some of those exemptions are or whether they come with volumetric limits on the quantity of exports to the United States. We’re still trying. We’ve done everything we can from the Prime Minister writing to President Trump.

CORIN You haven’t gone there, though.

DAVID Actually, I did offer to go there, and I was advised by officials that it wouldn’t make a difference. Prime Minister Abe sort of proved them right when he went a couple of weeks ago, and Japan hasn’t got an exemption either.

CORIN Fair enough. What point do you say, ‘We’ve got to go to the WTO and take them to the world’s court on this’?

DAVID Well, look, the rising protectionism in the world is worrying us in New Zealand. I think it’s worrying a lot of New Zealanders because they know that we’ve got to sell a lot of stuff to the rest of the world in order to pay for the cars and computers and phones and medicines and things that we import. It’s one of the reasons why we think the relative importance of plurilateral agreements like CPTPP are more important than they were a year ago; why we and the Prime Minister, particularly in Europe a couple of weeks ago, was pushing so hard—

CORIN When do you take action? When do you say, ‘Sorry, we know you’re a friend, United States, but you’re not treating us like one. We’re gonna take you to court’?

DAVID Well, I’m not going to speculate much on that on the TV other than to say that we’re very careful about not escalating these disputes because tit-for-tat—

CORIN You still think you’ve got a chance.

DAVID Well, we’ve still got a chance. We’re still trying, in respect of this particular issue. I’ve had a number of conversations with the US Ambassador. I’ve got another meeting coming up with him here. I think he’s trying to be helpful to New Zealand.

CORIN But what about the WTO itself? I mean, the US has been blocking appeal appellants on that body. There is some suggestion it’s being undermined by the US — maybe China’s undermining it as well. I mean, are you worried that the US is going to undermine that WTO process?

DAVID Yes, we are. The rule of law in international trade is as important as the criminal — well, it’s not as important, but it’s really important — as is the criminal code and other laws at home. So when the international rules relating to trade are undermined, it’s not in New Zealand’s interests. And they really seriously are. You know, that point— The WTO rules are enforced by what’s the Appellate Body, which is effectively the trade court. It only can work if it’s got judges. The United States is blocking the appointment of new judges. Soon it stops to function, and that means that alternatives to the WTO, like CPTPP, like the European Agreement.

CORIN Shouldn’t we, as the country that needs the WTO, be screaming from the rooftops and trying to lead a bit of a rear-guard action here?

DAVID Well, we’re not a superpower, so we can’t force other countries towards our will. We are influential. I think we’re probably more influential than our size would suggest, so we do our utmost to do our best on that front.

CORIN We are almost out of time, but I must ask you — Singapore. Is there going to be an exemption that allows people from Singapore to buy houses in New Zealand under the foreign buyers ban? Because you would breech their free-trade agreement as it currently stands, right?

DAVID It’s the one free-trade agreement other than the Australia agreement that we have a problem with our ban on foreign buyers. We are working that through. We’re getting closer to conclusion. It’s been a difficult negotiation. In the end—

CORIN What do we have to offer them? I mean, why would they do it?

DAVID Well, we were willing to make various offers. We haven’t resolved it yet. It’s not the be all and end all for New Zealand, given that there’s only, you know, a few dozen houses sold every year to Singapore buyers. But it was an important point of principle. We’re doing our best to resolve it.

CORIN Optimistic?

DAVID I’m sure we’ll get to a resolution whether it’s perfect, but I don’t know.

CORIN David Parker, thank you very much for your time on Q+A. We appreciate it.

DAVID Thank you.

Please find the full transcript attached and the link to the interview here.

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
Repeated Sunday evening at around 11:35pm. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz
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