Oh John Key, you muppet

So, I had to sleep on it, but I’ve worked out what it was that disappointed me so much about John Key’s embarrassing performance in front of the UK media on Hardtalk.

John Key won’t accept that our tourism slogan isn’t reality and dismisses all the evidence otherwise. When the interviewer brings up the level of polluting nutrients in our rivers, John Key denied that there was a problem. Well, here’s what the NZ government has to say on the water quality in our rivers:

“There was a strong increasing trend overall in total phosphorus and in dissolved reactive phosphorus, … and also a strong increasing trend overall in oxidised nitrogen and total nitrogen, which all indicate deteriorating water quality, mainly attributable to expansion and intensification of pastoral agriculture.”

That’s from the Water quality trends at National River Water Quality Network sites for 1989-2007 report.

Or there’s the 2009 update to this data, with the key finding that “Nutrients have worsened”.

In fact, our water quality is so bad that this Monday, the government announced a new Clean-up Fund for water quality, with the Environment Minister stating “We have a number of significant rivers and lakes that require major clean-up investments”.

So, John Key, you’re a muppet, for denying reality.

Which brings us to how to present New Zealand overseas, given that our clean green image is a key part of our tourism. It’s undeniable that we’re running into our environmental limits, so John Key’s head in the sand approach isn’t acceptable. It we actually want to engage with this problem, and frankly, we don’t have a choice here, then there are several other approaches we could take:
1) Defensive – “Our rivers are polluted coz we grow food for you, so quit bitching at us.”
2) Sniffy – “Our standards for river pollution are much stricter than European standards, so much so that most rivers in Western Europe would exceed New Zealand’s pollution trigger limits by a factor of ten. What constitutes highly polluted for us would be clean for you.”
3) Responsive – “Yes, like every other nation with modern agriculture, we’ve got water quality problems and we’re working hard to fix them. Why, just this Monday we announced a big investment in cleaning up our rivers. Look, the New Zealand budget comes out later this month, we’re in a tight fiscal situation, there’s very little new spending, but top of the list is improving our water quality. That’s how much this matters to us.”

Or we could, you know, just fix the problem by requiring farmers to pollute rivers less. Instead, Key’s government this week released an entirely watered-down freshwater policy statement. If we haven’t got real policy, and we haven’t, then the Key government’s solution seems to be good PR, so I think we can expect a combination of 2 and 3 as a protective layer of bluster.

27 thoughts on “Oh John Key, you muppet”

  1. just fix the problem by requiring farmers to pollute rivers less

    I seem to recall the previous government trying to do something about this, but the farming lobby screamed so loudly that they were given long enough to fix the problem that it could be safely ignored for another decade (or two)…

    1. Yeah, Fonterra & Federated Farmers pushed the last government to do very little about this, where “very little” means the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, an entirely voluntary agreement that farmers should do something about it, at some point in the future. The 2009/10 progress report shows that the dairying industry has met two of the five targets it was supposed to meet by 2007. Whoops.

      Still, there are farmers and then there’s Federated Farmers, and the two are not the same. I get the impression that lots of farmers are less resistant to doing something about it than the Feds.

      1. I would agree, with the caveat that lots of farmers would probably prefer not to have to spend large amounts of money they don’t really have on things that won’t increase their income.

        I’m sure there’s an argument for how meeting the targets will increase their income, but in order to be effective the ‘how’ needs to be specific and reasonably immediate rather than ‘improving our image will have flow-on effects’ or increased productivity when X technology becomes commercially viable.

        1. And herein lies the fundamental policy argument. Farmers are making private profits and damaging public resources. However, where the debate gets stuck is the next step, of who should pay to fix this. This gets framed as either:

          Greens: By polluting and not paying for it, farmers are pushing their costs onto us and they should stop.
          Federated Farmers: By imposing extra costs onto the farmers, the government is just screwing over the poor cockies, yet again.
          Lots of actual farmers: Farmers would like to take steps that benefit the environment, but those steps cost money for no return to the farmers but a good return to the rest of society, so the rest of society should pay farmers to take those steps.

          The Greens are going to jump up and down about their position, and I’d agree with them, but then again on less than 10% of the vote, obviously lots of Kiwi’s don’t. As for the Feds, they seem to be about a decade behind the plot. So we might see a fair amount of sympathy for the third view, because I think most Kiwi’s recognise that farmers do more than just produce food, they manage the landscape that we all care about. Still, paying farmers to manage the environment clashes with the great Kiwi belief in no agricultural subsidies, so I’ve no idea where this debate will end up.

          1. The ‘great kiwi belief’ in no agricultural subsidies is less than 30 years old, which is one of the reasons that there’s still also a belief that all farmers are rich. Once upon a time, they were, and a lot of that was to do with agricultural subsidies (at least in the middle of last century).

            Personally I don’t see environmental management subsidies as being at all the same as, for example, fert subsidies. One increases productivity and profit to the farmer while potentially damaging the environment, the other prevents the farmer suffering a loss from taking steps to protect the environment. I’d also rather subsidise a farmer (small business) than a honking great corporation in another country.

            Just to throw it out there, is there some middle ground in which the environmental protection stuff (the main objective) gets done as a ‘we are all in this together’ kind of approach? ie, farmers pay tax too?

          2. Potentially there is, although the impression I’m getting is that in NZ, no-one’s really quite sure what’s the best way to go about it, if we did decide to go about it.

            That might be direct payments for environmental goods like hedgerows as they do in the UK, it might be an approach built rates relief on unproductive land as we already do in NZ, it might be a bunch of different things. Ask me again in a year’s time.

          3. I know this is a small thing, but I’m thinking of fencing off waterways as an example. If the farmers get their costs covered (materials for fencing and reticulation if they have consent to take water for their livestock from the waterways) and do the work themselves, you could say both have contributed.

            Things like fert runoff are harder, because in that case you’re looking at a hit to the farmer’s productivity (especially on hill country) with no real reimbursable costs. What do the boffins have to say about preventing fert runoff on hill country? I know little about the nuts and bolts of how it’s recommended to be done.

          4. Cost sharing like that is definitely one way to go.

            However, given that dairy farmers signed up to an Accord saying that they’d fence their streams by 2007, and they haven’t, that makes it more difficult to pay them for something that they already said they would do themselves.

            The thing about fert runoff, the fertiliser is already a direct cost to the farmer, coz any runoff is lost dollars to the farmers and fertiliser isn’t cheap these days. So you’d expect them to be quite keen on reducing this loss and it’s a surprise that there are still farmers without plans to make the most of their fertiliser.

            So yeah, it’s all a nice theory until the rubber hits the road.

          5. So I’d be asking why the farmers didn’t fence their streams. Is it because they a) didn’t have the money, b) were all gung ho till they found they couldn’t then didn’t want to admit it, c) did fence them but the fences got washed away in a flood, d) realised how much useful land they’d lose by fencing far enough away from the streams so they wouldn’t wash away in a flood, or e) couldn’t be arsed? The answer to that question might shed light on how to get the Accord moving.

            And the how part of preventing fert runoff is a bit harder that ‘just don’t let it’. If you’ve 60% hill country which is a) needing fert to produce and b) more prone to runoff than flat country, what exactly can you do? Use less fert is obvious but not conducive to survival, and other than that, what are the options and how do they work into a farm budget – ie do they not have plans because they’re lazy motherfuckers or do they not have plans because none of the options are economically viable?

            More research needed, clearly.

          6. Quite a few people at MAF working away on those questions, but frankly, I think there’s a fair few farmers in the category of f) see no need, given the lack of sanctions against farmers who haven’t fenced their streams.

          7. And the lack of inducements for them to do so. Yes yes I know, we should all care about the environment as much as you do and act accordingly.

            In which case, why are there not droves of people offering to do the fencing for them instead of talking about how sanctions should be brought against them?

          8. Coz it’s the farmers that are responsible for the cows and they’ve signed up to keeping the cow shit out of the river. They’re not doing it and rightly being called on it. This isn’t about whether I personally care or not, it’s mostly about meeting the environmental standards of the overseas buyers of our dairy. Even if people don’t care about the environment, this is about market access and our farmers are a tad fucked without that.

            Here’s the original article from Dr Mike Joy that the BBC quoted. As far as I can tell, there’s not a factual error in it.

          9. Meanwhile, there’s a perception in this country, especially amongst the internet afficionados, that agriculture doesn’t matter any more, and that we should be moving away from being an agriculture-based economy.

            Whether that’s true or not is probably less relevant than the impact it has, which is a bunch of people on one side going “Fuck the farmers, they should xxxxx” regardless of the consequences to their livelihood”, and a bunch on the other side going “Well where’s our extra market access then and by the way, how’s our livelihood doing under the RMA?”

            None of which addresses the issue of how to make things actually happen.

  2. If we think it’s bad now

    Just wait until the RWC puts NZ (and our tourism-focused spin) in the world media spotlight.

    Once international journalists peek behind the 100% curtain, they will put one more nail in the coffin of our our single biggest selling point.

    1. Re: If we think it’s bad now

      Yeah, you’d think that even if they’re not going to front up with some decent policies, they’d at least have their excuses ready. Instead, I think they really don’t realize just how far behind NZ is.

    2. Re: If we think it’s bad now

      Just wait until the RWC puts NZ (and our tourism-focused spin) in the world media spotlight.

      You think that a competition in a sport played seriously by a handful of countries (not including the US and most of the EU) is actually going to get noticed by world media? Laughed at maybe…

      I suspect that both the IRB & RWC2011 Ltd are both in dreaming land, and a large part of the anticipated “goodies” from the RWC aren’t actually going to materialise, and everyone, including the government, are going to have a reasonable amount of egg on their faces when it’s all said and done…


  3. John Key has reduced me to spluttering on a number of occassions recently. DISBELIEVING THE DATA is not a reasonable or well-argued response. He’s undermining the value and influence of NZ science/statistics/[insertimportantstuffhere] every time he opens his f’ng mouth.

    In addition to looking like an idiot on the world stage.

    1. Well, to be utterly pedantic, if the data is poor quality or limited, then disbelieving it is a valid response. However, when it’s data from the government’s own comprehensive water quality network, agreed upon by central government, local government, and academia, when it’s data that’s widely respected as some of the better water quality data in the world, then it’s just embarrassing to see Key sticking his fingers in his ears.

      1. Even if those quality issues WERE true, you’d still have to say “I disagree with the data for xyz reason.” The unqualified “I don’t believe it” is neither an adult nor a productive response!

        1. Thinking here of Key’s response to Paul Henry’s questions about Anand Satyanand, I think he’s not a very quick thinker and prone to knee-jerk reactions and saying the first dumb thing that comes into his head.

          1. I agree and it think it’s not worthy of a national leader. At least he’s got much less power than GW Bush, who was equally thick and chummy.

  4. I think Key was completely spooked by being interviewed by a journalist who wasn’t a paid up member of the National Party. That never happens in NZ!

    Given that we have less than 5 million people living on the space that in most places in the world hosts 10 or 20 times that number, I can’t see that we’re hitting our hard limits.

    We just need to stop giving polluters a free ride. Things like keeping stock away from rivers and requiring industrial plants to have proper effluent treatment works well, where it happens.

    1. Well, hard limits depends upon ecosystems, and our ecosystems are adapted to New Zealand conditions. We’re also lucky to be starting from far more pristine conditions than the rest of the world.

      Keeping stock out of rivers is one of the two goals of the Clean Streams Accord that’s being met. Where dairy farmers are failing is in having nutrient budgets, complying with resource consents and regional plans immediately, and fencing wetlands. Those are not hard goals, they are the goals that the industry voluntarily signed up to. You’d think they could manage even that.

      (I also note that streams are defined in the Clean Streams Accord as deeper than a red-band gumboot and wider than a stride. Practical legislation FTW!)
      (Most point-source pollution from industrial plants is passably regulated, it’s diffuse pollution from fields that’s the unresolved problem in NZ.)

  5. My dog would not drink from the Ngaio Stream, and there are no plants growing in it, with nary a farm in the catchment. It’s not just agriculture that’s a problem.

    1. Urban streams have problems with people’s old septic tanks and problems with piping systems. That’s a separate issue from rural streams, with separate solutions. I’d agree that it also needs fixing, but for lakes like Taupo or Rotorua, nitrogen run-off from farms is the big issue.

  6. or the approach the Key took:

    4) Claim scientists are just like lawyers and we all have different opinions that politicians can pick and choose from at will. BECAUSE THAT’S HOW SCIENCE WORKS!

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