Dirty dairying inspires a common-sense approach from the politicians

Dealing to dirty dairying is an issue that the three major parties fundamentally agree on. Is a parliamentary accord on protecting our waterways next?

I have said in the past that for the Green Party to broaden their appeal, they would need to engage with the real economy, including a better appreciation of the importance dairy farming to the New Zealand economy. With their recent announcements about protecting rivers and streams, it is clear that the Greens have done just that. I imagine the Greens plan has been sometime in the making.

I think we would all agree that this election has been one of the most unusual in recent history. And that it is very easy for partisans to become quite extreme. But beneath all that, it is now looking like there is an emerging political consensus on the need to make our farming system fundamentally more sustainable. This might be one of the most enduring outcomes of this election.

Yes, I have said, that I would not discuss party policy. However, this item is primarily about the degree of consensus that is emerging on one of the key issues that define how New Zealanders think about themselves and their country.  We have had previous examples of how a consensus can develop, including our nuclear free status, national superannuation and Kiwi saver.

As a private pilot I have flown over much of the Waikato region, often at quite low level. At the height of 1000 feet, you can get a very good view of the quality of the rivers and streams, and the proximity of stock to them. And during the past few years I have been paying particular attention to these things. It is easy to see the difference between those farms where care is taken to fence waterways with a decent riparian margin, and those where it is not. The difference readily shows up in the colour of the water and the biodiversity of the farm.

I would have to say that fencing off a one-metre margin is completely insufficient in many cases. It might be OK for drains and streamlets, but it is clearly inadequate for larger watercourses.

So where is this emerging consensus taking us? It is instructive to compare the policies of the three main parties.

National has announced that it will require farmers to prevent beef and diary cattle getting into water courses by 2017. In practical terms that means fencing off the stream margin. Although it is not explicitly stated, the margins would be governed by current criteria, which provides for a one-metre marginal strip.

National will also have a fund of $100 million to acquire sensitive land. This is expected to be supplemented by funds from Regional Councils. Presumably this fund will be used primarily for the acquisition of the margins of major rivers and of particular wetlands.

Labour has a more effects-based approach. The key commitment is to ensure all rivers and lakes are safe for swimming and fishing. In terms of achieving this, a Labour-led government would work with the dairy industry to expand the implementation of techniques that would reduce run-off of nutrient-rich effluent. Although not explicitly stated, I assume Labour supports farmers the fencing off streams and other watercourses.

The Greens policy is remarkably similar to National's. They have an 18-page paper, replete with source data to back up the policy. In common with Labour, the Greens have stated that the objective of the policy is that rivers and lakes should be safe to swim in. It is the means to get there that is similar to National. The Greens will require all farmers to fence off streams, rivers and other water bodies with a planted buffer to protect water quality. The width of the riparian strip is not specified, but it will be developed in co-operation with Councils and the farming industry.

There is also a $100 million fund ($30 million per year) to help farmers do the fencing and to protect particularly valuable areas of biodiversity.

On the face of it, there is a huge convergence of the policies of our three major parties. Each of them can claim they have a plan to end “dirty dairying”. And I must say that I did not expect this level of convergence on this topic at this election.

It does raise the prospect of a parliamentary accord on this issue, at least so far as the fundamentals are concerned. We have had such accords before as in national superannuation. This issue, apart from adjusting the age, has largely fallen off the political battleground.

I suspect a great majority of New Zealanders would welcome such an approach in respect of water quality. We all see it as our birthright. There now seems to be an emerging consensus among the major parties in what has to be done to guarantee it.

Surely such a parliamentary accord would be an achievable goal for the incoming government.