Something for protesting farmers to bark about

Farmers used to be solid, sensible folk. At least, that is the memory of I have of living among them as a youngster. Now they are common-or-garden protesters.

They drive tractors down main streets and up Parliament’s steps. They dress up in dog’s clothing.

They use the classic protest techniques of students down the ages: overstate and exaggerate and strike poses of moral and civil offence.

In the 1960s Ralph Hanan had a quip for protesting students: fleas on a dog. The question now is: are farmers making the body politic itchy?

Campaign after campaign: to stop the methane tax, stop people accessing public waterways, stop the transfer of Crown leases on back-country land and stop Transpower’s power line to Auckland (following on from the fight against Project Aqua a few years back). Then, most recently, the campaign to stop microchipping dogs. Next: a campaign to get the Resource Management Act out of their way (though, obviously, not out of the way of those they want to stop).

Each campaign had a kernel of validity — more than kernel in the cases of the waterways, given too many townies’ disregard of property rights, animal welfare and country etiquette, and of the Crown lease procedure. In each case, however, the kernel was fabricated into a huge nut.

The bigger the nut, the more it has suited the National party. National needs noise and it needs notice. Dog-in-the-manger farmers helped National win a swag of provincial electorate seats last year.

Now let us acknowledge farmers’ critical importance to the economy. Land-based products, particularly horticultural and pastoral products, are the bulk of our exports, the country’s cashflow earners in the world. Farmers are very, very important.

But microchipping dogs would hardly bankrupt them. It would be a flea-bite addition to their expenses.

And neither was it core business for the government. Four Greens chose a different principle from their co-leader’s principle and made a majority to exempt “working” dogs. Not good for predictability in votes in the House (so, bad for the Greens) but the issue itself was peripheral to good government.

Jeanette Fitzsimons’ principle had it right. Microchipping dogs is unlikely to save many, if any, children from a dog mauling. It was designed to protect MPs’ backs in the hysteria after one such dog mauling. Microchipping was reflex politics, a phenomenon now endemic in our public life. It was not high policy.

Why, this hysteria having died out long ago, the government chose to die in a ditch on dog chipping is hard to fathom in the real world where dog attacks are less a menace to children than adult attacks.

Using up political capital to no good purpose in a third term is akin to reckless conduct. And letting a micro issue build up big so that the country is laughed at abroad for the trivia of its politics was a misjudgment.

The most logical argument for the government’s stance was that it indulged New Zealand First on an issue of law and order. Ron Mark’s speech was a treat.

If there is an argument for microchipping, it might be modernisation. If dogs have to be registered — and they have for a long time — it makes sense to develop an electronic mechanism. Being able quickly to tell if a dog is registered or not and respond accordingly makes good business sense.

Moreover, it could work out cheaper if the annual fee could be waived or reduced. The dog registration industry could perhaps be slimmed instead of fattened and rate rises slimmed accordingly.

But even so, are there not bigger matters for Parliament to spend its time on?

Farmers who could look beyond their noses — and whose lobby organisation could look beyond its own myopic need to convince members and doubters it gives value for money — might more productively mount a campaign for more science and research.

Farmers are unprotected in a hostile world that locks out their products or lumps tariffs and non-tariff barriers on them. They must battle an unpredictable climate. Labour is scarce. Broadband is an urban privilege. In many cases their nearby towns do not provide the range of services of 50 years ago.

So of course they need to keep costs down and the rest of us should not dump unnecessary extra costs on them.

But equally or more important, as good businesses know, they also need ways to lift revenue. That means lifting per-person, per-animal and per-hectare productivity through better management and new technology and with new food and medicinal products developed out of their prosaic raw materials.

And, if that new revenue is to keep them ahead of world competition, the new technology must be home grown, which in turn needs home-grown science, which in turn needs townies’ tax money, in large amounts.

That would be worth a battle in Parliament. And a battle on the streets by farmers with a yen for protest.

If setting the dogs on Parliament can stop microchips, perhaps it could also get more science. That would do us all good.