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20 July 2006

Feds attack on environmentalism unwise


When Fed Farmers president Charlie Pedersen railed about environmentalism at the federation's conference in Nelson earlier this week, delegates thought he was walking on water.

"I say shame on the people who elevate environmentalism to a religious status, shame on you for your arrogance, shame on all of us for allowing the environmentalists' war against the human race to begin, and take hold," he said to delegate applause.

The reactions of the Green Party and ENGOs were predictably dismissive. But the most important reaction was from the public at large. On the Stuff website, respondents were unanimous in their condemnation of his views which they described as 'hysterical', 'ignorant' and 'out-of-touch'.

We haven't seen any poll results as yet, but WHAM suspects that Pedersen's outburst will have confirmed the view of many urbanites that the federation -- and by extension, farmers in general -- are reactionaries playing fast and loose with the environment.

Every lobby group and populist politician faces the dilemma of far they should go in feeding the prejudices their constituents hold dearly, when doing so antagonises the very people they need to influence in their favour. 

Going too far is a risk that Pedersen seems prepared to take. Indeed, the surprise for Federation watchers is that he's taken so long to set aside the image of industry statesman in favour of that of political firebrand -- his usual style before he became president a little over a year ago.

A particular concern of the federation is the way the Resource Management Act is implemented by district and regional councils. The federation has a right to be concerned -- many everyday farming activities with no true environmental impact require expensive and time consuming resource consents.

But if Pedersen wants councillors, the public at large and environmentalists to relax RMA restrictions on farmers, he needs to win their sympathy and to convince them that farmers are responsible stewards of the environment. He has done the opposite. In one ill-judged speech, he has bombed the bridges which need to be built with other sectors of the community and nuked the goodwill created by the many farmers who are serious about ensuring their farming practices are sustainable.  

As Pedersen reminded the faithful, Federated Farmers has been highly successful with its campaigns against the Fart Tax, walking access along river banks, and dog micro-chipping. The next target is the RMA.

Success in these earlier campaigns does not mean the federation will enjoy similar success with the RMA. The earlier issues were about one-off government policies with flaws the public could easily understand. Even so, the federation burnt up political capital getting its way -- both with government and with those who believed the proposed policies had some merit.

As an issue, RMA reform is far more complex and is difficult for the public to understand.  It also has many defenders who would undoubtedly fire back quotes from Pedersen's speech to reinforce their view that RMA based rules need tightening rather that relaxing.

In the last decade, under the stewardship of former chief executive Tony Sinclair, Federated Farmers became one of New Zealand's most successful lobby groups. Its policy staff in Wellington and the regions do excellent work on behalf of members, and this is reflected in mass membership support.

However, effective advocacy on specific issues requires more than good slogans. It's also about winning the hearts and minds of the public at large and those who influence and represent them.

In this area, the federation and farming organisations generally are extremely weak. For exampe, there are no primary or secondary school educational resources on the Federated Farmers or Meat & Wool New Zealand websites. If children are going to grow up with a balanced view of farming and the environment, they need educational materials which balance those supplied by the ENGOs and green activisits.

Also good leadership is not only about firing up the troops by appealing to their prejudices. It's also about telling them when they are out of step with the rest of society, or when they need to 'up their act'.

If Pedersen wants to see RMA reform, he needs to remind his members to meet community expectations in regard to sustainable farming practices.  Telling the public they are wrong to have those expectations is foolish in the extreme.

As one Gerald Bothe, writing on Stuff website says,  "If [Pedersen] thinks New Zealanders are enamoured with the idea of turning Lake Taupo into an immense open toilet for dairy cows - as he advocates - he has completely misread the public sentiment."

Reference: www.fedfarm.org.nz/Charlie180706.html

- Trevor Walton

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