Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks out on Groundswell farmer protests

As farmers march across the country in opposition to rural regulations, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is standing firm on the Government's commitments. 

"I do not accept any suggestion of a rural-urban divide," she said in response to the Groundswell protests on Friday. "What I accept is that we have national challenges."

Farmers are protesting in more than 50 cities and towns across New Zealand to voice their concerns about the Government's "barrage of regulations" they say "aren't fit for purpose". 

They hope to send a message to the Government that rural communities are not pleased with proposed regulations around freshwater, winter grazing, changes to where livestock can enter rivers and lakes, and looming costs on importing utes. 

"We know what it takes to get clean water and you don't get it through regulations and you don't get it through unworkable regulations," protest organiser Bryce McKenzie told The AM Show on Friday. 

"Some of us are third-generation farmers... If we were ruining the land that we were on, surely we wouldn't be able to farm it still. So, it's in our interest to actually look after that farmland for the next generation."

Ardern says everyone in New Zealand is "free to have their voice heard" - but in her view, the Government is working alongside the rural community to tackle issues such as climate change and clean water. 

"We can't stand still. Those challenges are coming at us. But our view is that we'll come up with solutions that are more sustainable and workable, if we come together," she said. "We've done that on M bovis, we've done that on climate issues, and we will continue to work together."

Ardern said the uncertainty felt in the rural sector could be because the Government is taking the time to engage with the community. 

"One of the issues that's been raised with me from the rural sector is the issue of whether or not there's some uncertainty. That uncertainty is actually ultimately because we're taking the time to work with our farmers and our primary sector on solutions.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub

"Climate change is an example of that where it's actually our primary sector leaders who are driving our response in that area and I believe it will be a world-leading result.

"We cannot stand still. If we want to make sure that on the world stage our exports continue to fetch a high price and are highly valued, we have to make progress on the challenges New Zealand and the world is facing.

"We're committed to doing that alongside our farmers."

The Government has invited farmers and growers for feedback on freshwater farm plans and stock exclusion maps, with a new discussion document conceding that "feedback has shown that the mapping methodology needs to be improved". 

Freshwater farm plans are one of several changes the Government is making, alongside amendments to winter grazing, the map of low-slope land for livestock access, and a reevaluation of the nutrient management tool Overseer.  

Farmers are also soon to be taxed on agriculture emissions. In 2019 the Government gave farmers five years to develop practical ways to measure and price emissions, to be separate from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). 

Agriculture will be included in the ETS if an alternative isn't figured out by 2025. But either way, farmers would get a 95 percent discount - despite agriculture making up about half of New Zealand's reported emissions. 

A protest sign amid the Groundswell marches.
A protest sign amid the Groundswell marches. Photo credit: Supplied

"There is no question in my mind that our primary sector is critical to New Zealand - they've helped get us through COVID," Ardern says.

"That doesn't mean, unfortunately, the challenges to our environment are going away and a good number of farmers have worked closely with us to try and address those challenges."

The Groundswell protest is also taking aim at the Government's clean car incentive scheme, which will target imported high-emission vehicles with fees while newly imported electric and hybrid vehicles will get discounts. 

Ardern revealed last month that the Government considered exempting utes from financial penalties in the scheme but ended up ruling it out, despite there being no alternative clean options on the horizon for years. 

Documents show consideration was given to remove or reduce the fee on utes with the lowest emissions, or on utes bought by a farming business that met strict sustainability criteria. But it's noted this would add "administrative complexity". 

Judith Collins, as part of National's new campaign 'Demand the Debate', is calling on the Government to review its 'Ute Tax'. 

"Labour never campaigned on the Ute Tax and in fact was categorical in ruling out any new taxes. The rural sector along with almost every New Zealander is being hit in the back-pocket through new taxes, rent increases and costs on businesses."