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Campaign trail . . . Visiting Oamaru last week, hosted by Labour Party Waitaki candidate Liam Wairepo (left), are Labour environment, and trades and export spokesman David Parker, and Labour list candidate Rachel Brooking. PHOTO: ASHLEY SMYTH

Environment minister David Parker says farming legislation had to change in order to clean up New Zealand’s waterways, and he can handle the criticism flung his way.

Mr Parker, who visited Oamaru last week, said the Labour Government had been elected on a platform of stopping the degradation of waterways, and it was its “democratic obligation” to the voters to implement its plan.

“Because most New Zealanders are not satisfied that, even now, twice as many rivers in New Zealand are degrading as are improving, according to the Macro-invertebrate Index.”

The national environmental standards for freshwater, which were released in July, include limits on land-use intensification, controls on intensive winter grazing, and limits on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

Criticism that the legislation had been rushed through without consultation was unfounded, he said.

“We have consulted – in fact, we took three years to develop these rules – and every step of the way, people said that the consultation was too rushed. And even so, we only just delivered it within a three-year time period.”

Meetings were held up and down the country and “many thousands of submissions” received from individual farmers, as well as farming groups such as Beef + Lamb New Zealand, DairyNZ and Federated Farmers.

These were analysed by officials and an expert consenting panel, he said.

“The conclusion of all of that was that there are some practices that are inherently risky. And we know that if you inappropriately carry out intensive winter grazing, on fodder crops for example, on sloping land, and you don’t do it properly .. then you can literally lose tens of tonnes of sediment per hectare per annum.

“Now, that’s in no-one’s interests. Farmers shouldn’t want to lose that, because that threatens their long-term viability, but it also ruins waterways,” he said.

Changes were not expected to happen overnight.

“We’re actually allowing things to be improved over the next generation. It now falls to the regional councils to implement these rules.

“We’ve provided a lot of resources, including monetary support for the implementation of these rules. We’ve got an implementation group, which has regional councillors, people from Beef + Lamb, DairyNZ, environmental NGOs [non-government organisations], Maori groups, all co-operating because there’s a considerable amount of goodwill amongst all of these groups to actually implement these things in a way that works, to protect our waterways, but is also practical for farmers and urban populations, because our urban centres aren’t without problems. And we are applying the same standards in our urban areas as we are rural.”

He denied the changes would put more pressure on farmers, which could lead to mental health issues.

“I think if people have got serious mental illness problems, they’re not caused by the Government. It is true that we have mental illness problems .. across all parts of society, and one of our budgets placed a real focus on mental health services for everyone in society.

“In terms of other general pressures .. a lot of farmers have had record profit years. Interest rates are at historic lows. Prices are high. And even in Covid there were special allowances made for the rural sector, compared with other sectors who didn’t have that same flexibility. And that’s one of the reasons why the rural sector has done better financially than just about any other sector in the country,” Mr Parker said.

“It’s great. But I’m not sure that there’s any more pressure in that sector than others.”

He said he expected opposition to the legislation – there were always people resistant to change.

“If things were going to fix themselves, they would have fixed themselves already, and they haven’t. And everyone has a role to play in this, and I know that one of my roles is to push things along.

“Once we were elected with a mandate to improve water quality, it was my job to implement it. And I know how to do it.

“I’ve got a pretty thick skin – you have to in my job. And I also know that my job is as a representative of the people to do what I’m elected to do. And I can’t please all of the people all of the time.”