Weekend Herald

Ute vehicle for a bigger message

- Claire Trevett

The rules sheet issued by organisers of yesterday’s Howl of a Protest showed farmers have learned from the errors of past protests. It warned those taking part not to get into “heated arguments with people”.

“We want to be the sensible persuaders, not a bunch of rednecks.”

It is a valuable lesson, which was learned in the 2017 farmers’ protest in Morrinsvil­le over Labour’s policy to charge for the commercial use of water.

I covered that rally. Many “sensible persuaders” were there. But much of the focus went on Myrtle the tractor and a man who carried a “she’s a pretty little Communist” sign, referring to Jacinda Ardern.

Focusing on the personal rather than the message makes it that much easier to dismiss such protests as misguided.

The organisers were well aware of the risk of that happening.

And there were ominous signs of it, with placards comparing “Cindy” to Stalin and using the “Taxcinda” phrase.

But it would pay for the Government to discern between those elements and the concerns of the persuaders rather than dismiss the whole shebang as misguided or as a protest over one single issue.

The ute tax came to be seen as the main thrust of the protest. But for the farmers at least, it was not about the ute tax.

The ute tax was simply the salt being rubbed into the wound. It would not have escaped them that the Prime Minister said Cabinet considered exempting farm and work utes from the fee, but decided it was too complicate­d.

The protest was the rural sector making it clear they felt besieged by the pace and scale of reforms.

Labour has stood accused of failing to deliver in some policy areas, most notably housing and transport.

But it is driving ahead with major reforms programmes in almost every sphere of government – and local government.

That is now starting to have a cumulative effect. The farmers are simply the first to break.

It is tempting for the Government to dismiss the objections of farmers as driven by greed.

Farmers have accepted the need for some reform, and have worked with the Government on it. But farmers are caught up in almost all of the various streams of reform on the environmen­t and climate change.

They will be hit by moves to reduce transport emissions, pricing on agricultur­al emissions, higher environmen­tal standards on water, and protection of sensitive land.

No matter how well signalled much of it has been, it is now all hitting at once.

It is hitting at the same time as other reforms in workplace relations, immigratio­n, the Resource Management Act and local government, all of which also affect farmers.

And it is hitting in the midst of worker shortages and other problems that Covid-19 has delivered.

In ordinary times, a crisis such as Covid-19 would be a time for a steadythe-ship government rather than a reforming government.

But it is becoming increasing­ly clear Ardern does not intend to go down in history as simply a stabiliser in a tough time.

In the past, she has pointed to the economic reforms of the 1980s as a lesson in the toll fast and dramatic reforms could take.

However, the predecesso­rs she has most admired have all been the reformers, those who left a legacy. She fully intends to leave her own.

Ardern is most set on climate change and the environmen­t: the issues she has put at the heart of her leadership.

Ahead of the protests, Ardern warned she would listen but would not back down, arguing it was in the economic interests of the country to forge ahead.

However, the wider concern for Ardern should be that reform fatigue will not stay restricted to the rural sector. Major reforms are under way in health, immigratio­n, tourism, and the three waters decision was only the start of local government reform.

It effectivel­y strips councils of one of their core activities. National’s Judith Collins was right to describe a $2.5 billion funding package for councils to spend on other things as a “bribe” to get them to sign up to the water plan.

If similar steps follow on other council core activities, they risk becoming little more than social clubs.

Some of the reasons Ardern does not want to slow her reform programme are political.

It is the first year of Labour’s second term. The Government is hoping that pushing through the most controvers­ial reforms now will mean the heat around them has abated by the next election in 2023.

More critically, Labour has been delivered the very rare gift of being a majority Government, and the power to do what it wants without being shackled by another party.

It has to move at pace if it wants to make the change promised before the voters lump it with another party to deal with – or into Opposition.

The risk is that pushing large-scale reforms through at pace will only decrease the chances of Labour securing another term as a one-party government.

Farmers very rarely protest en masse. When they do, it is usually about taxes and it has been effective. In 2003, the fart tax rally scuppered Labour’s plan for a levy on emissions to pay for scientific research.

In 2017, the protest was over Labour’s water tax policy. It was one of the first to hit the floor in Labour’s negotiatio­ns with NZ First and was not revived.

This time, the farmers may not be so lucky.

But if it does not tread with care, the Government may also find it starts to run out of luck.

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