Looking over the fence

Once upon a time farmers had great leverage within and over the National party. This past week or two the iwi leadership group has had more. Its lever is the Maori party’s votes Nick Smith needs for his revised emissions trading scheme (ETS).

Farmers got intensity-based status in the ETS with no cap. But they have not got out of the ETS, as farmers in Australia have from that country’s, through the Liberal-National opposition.

Don Nicolson, Federated Farmers president, told his flock on Wednesday that they “must revisit things we previously opposed” — code for the Feds’ trashing of Labour’s carbon tax (the “fart tax”) in 2005.

Nicolson reached into Shakespeare to lament what he sees as farmers’ outcast status. “If you poison us, do we not die?” he asked, quoting the Merchant of Venice’s Shylock.

The poisoners are “lobby groups and councils who frankly lie” and “the dollar spiked ever higher by government spending which, in real terms, is $30 billion higher today than it was in 1999”.

“I’ve had an absolute gutsfull,” Nicolson said, “of having our efforts” in providing the wherewithal to buy plasma televisions “thrown back in our face”.

“Real New Zealand are the farmers, manufacturers and tourism operators who earn 100 per cent of the currency that pays for teachers, doctors, medicines and services — 100 per cent of New Zealanders depend on what we do. That is 100 per cent pure fact.”

Actually, there are other significant foreign exchange earners, including oil producers, educators and high-end service and product exporters, but “fact” is in the eye of the beholder.

And, actually, “100 per cent pure” is the tourist industry’s “aspirational” marketing slogan on which it sells this country to foreigners as a landscape, water and cultural experience. John Key has put $20 million more into promoting it.

“Real New Zealand” — especially Nicolson’s herd’s bit — is nowhere near 100 per cent pure. We get by because there is still plenty of clean-looking landscape and not many people to clutter it up.

How much longer will the 100 per cent line run? Fred Pearce trashed it as “greenwash” in a not entirely accurate article in the London Guardian last week. Pearce is not a quick-and-dirty journalist. He wrote in 2007 a must-read book, “When the Rivers run Dry”, on the world’s rapidly diminishing water resources.

New Zealand has oodles of water. It is our principal economic competitive advantage. It is used partly to produce high-quality food and partly to lure tourists, especially high-spending ones.

But tourism and food producers have different needs. Wholesalers increasingly won’t book tourists in facilities that don’t meet their environmental standards. Feedback is growing from tourists who believed the slogan and are surprised to find an aged car fleet, polluted rivers and beaches and lax habits with plastic bags and so on.

So expect more “greenwash” articles, television documentaries and social network chatter. A brand has to earn trust and keep earning it — as Cadbury found with palm oil.

Nicolson counters that cows here are more climate-friendly than most other places, at least on Lincoln University’s limited research. It makes no climate sense, he correctly says, to replace milk production here with less-climate-friendly milk production elsewhere.

So, he says, John Key and Smith should stop “horse-trading” with the Maori party and join with ACT to repeal the ETS. He says National has been “bent out of shape” by the “bizarre lengths” it has gone to “to get amendments over the line”.

Put Nicolson with Gerry Brownlee, who reckons oil exports can earn $30 billion a year by 2025, and you have the makings of an argument for dropping the clean-green line in favour of just being rich. Would Saudi Arabia try to be 100 per cent pure?

But talk to a horticulture or wine industry or forestry strategist and you quickly get the message that the standards are being set not by Key and Smith or foreign governments but by the big international food and furniture chains, which want an environment-friendly brand for themselves. Even Fonterra acknowledges that.

So cow-fouled streams and rivers and beaches that are unswimmable after heavy rain because councils don’t decontaminate stormwater are all relevant to prosperity.

A reputation abroad for not trying hard enough to keep water clean and to curb emissions risks folks’ capacity to buy the rich-life gadgets Nicolson says his herd pays for now.

That is why Key bounced Nicolson on Wednesday and Smith lectured him on Thursday. And why, whatever the arguments about whether climate change is real and about what other countries are (not) doing, Key needs an ETS to tout abroad — even a flawed one that the next Labour government will probably rework.

The political change to come is not in the National party. It is in Nicolson’s organisation. Thirty years ago it led the debate on economic reform. That took courage and an urge to look over the fence.