The methane tax: are the peasants really revolting?

It is 2pm Friday in Feilding town square and about 250 whingers — sorry, farmers and spouses — have turned up from the surrounding lush acreages that make the town rich.

They’re prosperous, these folk, even in the dairy downturn. A local vehicle dealer says four-wheel-drive tanks are going out the door like hot cakes. The cockies have not put their chequebooks away.

But they don’t like Science Minister Pete Hodgson’s methane tax. (It is a tax; any compulsory payment levied by the government is a tax.) They are in the square to hear local Rangitikei MP Simon Power of National and farmer Gerry Eckhoff of ACT, who is touring the provinces in a yellow bus festooned with loudspeakers.

They also hear Manawatu mayor Ian McKelvie welcome them with: “Interesting, isn’t it? The very people who opposed [the prettification of] this square are the first people to use it.” A reputation for whingeing gets around.

Still, the mayor is onside over the tax: “Kyoto is a dangerous thing for us to have got involved with.”

Power quotes Hodgson saying back in 2001 it would be “remarkably stupid” to tax cattle and sheep.

Eckhoff is blunter: “You people of rural New Zealand produce nearly everything.” Go ring Palmerston North MP Steve Maharey, he tells them, “any time you like, to tell him what you think of his dumb tax”.

Federated Farmers vice-president Charlie Pedersen invites them all to a shindig at Parliament on September 4. Oodles of hot air promised, free of tax.

Politically, it is a dumb tax. Few outside the Beehive stick up publicly for it. It’s a vote-hardener in the sticks, for little revenue, which makes it a dumb tax fiscally as well.

The deeper question is: is it a dumb tax environmentally?

Inside that question is a big question and a little question.

The little question is about fairness.

In the red-and-green corner: farmers are exempt from the emissions charges looming for nearly everybody else, in the same way some other big emitters like the Marsden oil refinery and New Zealand Steel are exempt; but in return for being let off, those industrial companies have to clean up a bit; so, to be fair, logically farmers should, too, by helping fund research to cut methane emissions.

In the blue corner: farmers produce the bulk of merchandise exports so it is unfair (and also silly) to tax them when they are keeping the rest of us in clover; methane emissions are growing much more slowly than carbon dioxide; and anyway farm forest sequestrations of carbon dioxide more than cover the animal methane emissions, so farmers shouldn’t be taxed anyway. (Hodgson has nationalised forest emissions credits.)

That last comes from Denis Hocking, a farmer-greenie (but not a Green) who in 1978 was Values party candidate in Rangitikei. Smart cookie and a decent chap. Does his homework.

But in behind this question is the big question the mayor raised. Should we be hair-shirting ourselves with Kyoto?

Hodgson says it’s a no-brainer. The globe is warming. This country’s comparative advantage is climate, so we have most to lose from climate change through that warming. We can’t do this alone. We need to show willing so others will pitch in.

But China, all developing countries and the United States (and Australia) are not playing and Europe, which says it is, is so obdurate, hypocritical and duplicitous on trade that it can hardly be trusted on Kyoto. So will Kyoto actually work?

Hence it is natural for a farmer pondering life in the back paddock to ask some other questions.

a. Is the globe warming? Yes, say almost all scientists, though some dispute whether it is enough to push panic buttons.

b. If there is dangerous warming, is human economic activity the main culprit or is it mostly just a natural warming phase like many in the planet’s past? Most scientists say the first but some say the second — if so, will Kyoto work?

c. Many scientists say we’ve already ensured quite a lot of global warming even if we stop increasing emissions right now. So should we adapt rather than fight? Environmentalists and optimists for international cooperation say fight or face apocalypse. Sceptics say adapt. Get used to heatstroke in Britain, banana trees in Gore, storms and droughts. We have to adapt our economy anyway to lessen dependency on agriculture (and so climate) if we are to climb the OECD ladder.

Plenty of fodder there for farmers to be as determined on one side of the argument as the government is on the other — rather like the Sykes and Englishes at each end of the foreshore (pronouncement on which was after this went to press) or like Australia’s talking loudly and waving a big stick at proud micro-state independents at last week’s Pacific Islands Forum.

But are the peasants really revolting, as Powers and Eckhoff reckon? Count their mates at Parliament on September 4. And hear this from one cockie heading home from Feilding square: “It was disappointing. I thought it would be very noisy.”

Perhaps Hodgson could tax that.