2009-11-06

Reporting on politics and the environment

6 November 2009

Reporting on politics and the environment

Speech notes of Don Nicolson, President of Federated Farmers, delivered at the University of Otago

I wish to thank the University of Otago for affording me the opportunity of speaking to you in this session. I wish to acknowledge my co-panellists, Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei and the New Zealand Herald’s Brian Fallow.

Being a humble sheep farmer from Southland, an area once seen as a region in terminal decline, I can testify to how perceptions can be formed but then so easily confounded.

Instead of being New Zealand’s version of the ‘rust belt’, as it seemed in the 1980s, some say it’s more like Texas – but with more black, green, white and red gold potential. That being lignite, grass, milk and protein.

Nothing states progress more than winning that log of wood a few weeks ago. Boy, it’s grand to be alive.

You see farming too is bedevilled by preconceptions.

I call it the curse of 1980s. Farmers are typecast, wrongly, as wooden characters locked at some point in time, who apparently ‘bleat’ at the drop of a hat. It’s a caricature and it’s wrong.

This curse of the ‘80s is a folk-memory. The late David Lange’s misstep that, ‘agriculture was a sunset industry and manufacturing and tourism would take its place’, still haunts us today.

I think Mark Twain would have replied to Mr Lange that the rumours of agriculture’s death have been somewhat exaggerated.

The point in setting this scene of pre-conception is that agriculture’s economic importance has grown and not diminished.

Yet beneath this external perception of an insular industry, internally, our rural media is in rude health. There are dozens of skilled journalists in every sense of the word who take their craft extremely seriously.

The Guild of Agricultural Journalists & Communicators is a powerhouse of talent.

Yet New Zealand isn’t the Murray Ball image Kiwis co-opt but is very much an urban society. Our country is more urbanised than even Japan. The rural community is a mere 14 percent of the population while the pastoral farm population is estimated at just over 2 percent.

Servicing this small community includes three dedicated newspaper groups with a number of specialised magazines:

o Fairfax Rural Media Group’s main masthead is the weekly Straight Furrow. A masthead the Federation owned up until 1996

o NZX Rural’s main masthead is the weekly Farmers Weekly and

o Rural News Group’s main masthead is the eponymously named fortnightly, Rural News.

Outside of the weeklies, each of the major dailies has either a farming editor or a dedicated rural reporter. Yet farming forms a subset of the business section. Farming is seen, rightly, as being a business but this puts us at a public disadvantage to the environmental/political reporters who write in the main editorial section.

On radio there are four dedicated radio shows:

o Radio New Zealand’s sublime rural coverage and a weekly magazine style show

o Radioworks via Jamie Mackay’s daily show on its AM network

o Mediaworks competing daily show goes out on its BSport station with Richard Loe.

On television, we can boast a number of mainstream shows and even a dedicated channel:

o Country Calendar is a legend on TV1

o Rural Delivery is a weekly news show also on TV1

o The Country Channel on Sky channel 99 with more than 10,000 subscribers and

o Rob Cope-Williams farming show on regional television.

Online, there are a cornucopia of blogs, newswires and the like. We must also add in the publications we issue, like the quarterly National Farming Review and those of Fonterra, Meat & Wool, DairyNZ and the like.

Farmers don’t want for industry information, or challenge, and indeed devour it. In my organisation farmers speak for farmers, as we’re the ones with skin in the game.

The issue comes from reporting outside the farm gate.

To the uninitiated, agriculture can resemble a Masonic lodge, with ‘rituals’, ‘mysteries’ and ‘secrets’. If we reference back to San Lu, the agricultural reporters got shunted to one side while the political reporters muscled in and pulled rank.

We see the same thing emerging with the reporting of climate variation.

If you go by domestic reporting, it’s as if agriculture generates 99.9 percent of global emissions as opposed to a mere 0.1 percent.

There is precious little comparative reporting or a challenging of claims being made.

If we step back some 18 months, the fact Canada effectively gave up on Kyoto was never raised once as a reason to reject its pension fund’s bid for Auckland airport.

Yet the Green Party makes the claim we would be an international pariah without a massive emissions cut and an aggressive ETS.

Amazingly, mainstream media have omitted to inform the wider public that in Denmark, in whose capital a lot of people will compete for just 10,000 hotel beds, work will start on a post-Kyoto Protocol we’ll call Copenhagen.

Denmark resoundly rejected a methane tax. Why? Due to the adverse impact it would have had on Danish agriculture.

Not only that, but Europe’s farmers have, along with their North American brethren and probably those across the Tasman, won a free pass from their respective emissions trading regimes. It must be remembered that most farmers in Europe and North America benefit from massive subsidies. We don’t.

While John Key’s interview in the Wall Street Journal was given media prominence, the Journal’s critical editorials about our ETS related policies hasn’t.

The point I am making is that the mainstream media is self-censoring. There seems to be a conflict either with personal views or some accepted orthodoxy.

Whatever the reason, it builds a sense that the media is partisan on an issue very important to this country’s future. More so, given New Zealand is the only country on earth putting agriculture into an ETS.

I know the counter argument well too. Not including agriculture is like Australia ignoring coal. Then again, where’s the critical analysis on points of obligation? The issue with climate variation coverage is that is has not moved on far from the big picture, ‘save the planet’ line.

I mean, under Australia’s proposed ETS, only mining inputs and the domestic consumption of coal will be captured. Exported coal, like all fossil fuels, is zero rated; the treatment of that resource is left to the country importing it.

There’s one obvious question really, why can’t we do the same with food? Leave the emissions treatment over to the importing country.

This explains why farmers are seemingly from Mars but the media from Venus. A poll by the Business Council for Sustainable Development showed 90 percent of farmers believe the ETS is an ‘udder’ waste of time.

There’s another rub in all of this. Farmers are actually doing their bit for climate variation and the economy in spite of policy, not because of it.

Not that you would know from coverage.

New Zealand’s agricultural emissions represent 48 percent of our country’s profile. Yet agricultural emissions growth, between 1990 and 2007, was half that of the general economy; 12 percent for agriculture versus 24 percent for the rest of New Zealand.

Transport grew by 70 percent even with the Toyota Prius, while energy grew by 120 percent, despite the building of wind farms. Worse, electricity prices have gone up 70 percent plus as well.

Yet per unit of output, shock, horror, farmers have progressively reduced their emissions. You heard me right, progressively reduced the growth in agricultural emissions by twice that of the general economy.

You’d think there would be a slap on the back, given we’ve managed to lift productivity and the sector’s importance to the economy. No. Not a thing. Yet farmers are doing this through good business practice. That’s what removing state protection does.

I just wish to end by touching on what I consider to be an Achilles heel in this entire debate.

That being the focus on doom, which so dominates tomorrow’s world. As a Readers Digest poll revealed last week, this has many people turning against the green movement.

Not that this will see wanton destruction of the environment, more like low level passive resistance against being told what to do and how to think.

Look at it like this.

The daddy of all super volcanoes, Yellowstone, is now overdue to erupt and if it does, it is said 80 percent of all life on earth would perish. Meanwhile, Cambridge University astrophysicist, Sir Martin Rees, only gives humanity a 50/50 chance of making it into the next century. There’s a lot of near earth objects we don’t know about.

Living is not safe and we could all be wiped out tomorrow. Then again, we probably won’t be. The thing is to embrace life by working to improve things for the next generation.

Instead of buying into the negativity and fear that we must atone and regress to a lesser state, let’s adapt, evolve and grow. Let’s be resilient.

And guess what? We all use the environment every moment of every day but sections of society seem to be in denial about that fact.

After all, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones!

Thank you.

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