Q+A: David Parker interviewed by Corin Dann

Labour’s water spokesman David Parker’s standing by the party’s plan for farmers to pay for water, and says critics who say produce prices will go up are scaremongering.

CORIN Good morning to you. Let’s clear this up. What is the rate that you would charge farmers? 

DAVID Farmers, as opposed to water-bottlers, we’ve said 1or 2 cents per thousand litres. I think if you wanted me to a cent figure on it, I’d say 2 rather than 1.

2 cents. Okay. So what’s that going to equate to per average dairy farmer? Because Steven Joyce says it’s $50,000 a farm.
Oh, that’s rubbish. It would be at 2 cents – it would be about $100 million across the whole of the country for a year.

$100 million?
Which is, coincidentally, what Nick Smith says we need to spend every year for the next 23 years to clean up our waterways.

Has the Labour Party just been politically cute here? Because you’ve gone after the low-hanging fruit – the bottlers – which, let’s face it, even National was inching towards doing.
No, they haven’t.

Well, they’ve put a working group on it. They haven’t ruled out the possibility of doing it.
After nine years on the never-never.

Sure. So you get the credit for going for that – great. But going after our productive sector, putting an extra tax on them, making them more uncompetitive – doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
You know, the level of scaremongering around this would make Donald Trump blush. We had Hort New Zealand saying $18 cabbages. That equates to a million litres per cabbage. The thirstiest cabbage on the planet. I mean it’s just nonsense.

But it is true that if farmers do have to pay an increased cost, that they will pass it on to consumers. 
Well, let’s say that they did. It would be a tiny fraction of a cent per cabbage. But actually, in respect of milk and cheese, we know that’s set by the international price, not locally.

So they’re more uncompetitive and we lose more money to overseas competitors.
No, look, you know, if there’s a cost of cleaning up our rivers, cos I think it’s your birthright and mine to be able to swim in our local river in summer, and for our kids to put their head under without getting crook, there’s a cost to that cleanup. As Nick Smith said last week, he thought that the cost for central government was going to be about $100 million per annum. Now, who should pay that? Should we tax pensioners? Or working people? Or should the farmers who are polluting make a contribution? And that’s all we’re asking – not the cent per litre we’re proposing for water-bottlers, but, say, 2 cents per thousand litres.

Here’s the thing – you’ve targeted farmers. But why are you giving an exemption to Coca Cola and various other businesses in the cities?
Well, what we’ve said is that domestic and stock water will never pay. We’re not interested in the municipal sources of water. You know, Coca Cola, they already pay a dollar per cubic metre or a dollar per thousand litres to the Auckland Council for the water they drew. We’re not going to charge them twice.

But it does feel, there will be many in the farming sector who will be frustrated and feel they’re being singled out.
It is them who are polluting our rivers, so I don’t know how that’s unfair.

Well, they’re certainly a contributor.
Well, no. Let’s deal with one of the issues that Steven Joyce said. He said, ‘Look at the cities.’ You know, over the last decade, cities have improved their quality.

But they do pollute waterways as well.
Not nearly as much as they did in recent decades. And who’s paid for the cost of that cleanup? The people in the cities. They’ve paid for better sewerage treatment; the factories have cleaned up. And over those same decades, the rural sector rivers are getting worse. Now, who should pay? Should the polluter pay or should we tax pensioners?

Sure. But how do the people in the cities enjoy their lifestyle and their standard of living?
They are reliant upon the productivity of the rural sector. We all are.

So why would we penalise them?
We’re not penalising them. We’re saying that they should make a small contribution to the cleanup of our rivers so that they and you and your children and I can swim in our local rivers in summer.

You haven’t really dealt with the issue of iwi rights either, have you? You’ve said you’ll try and deal with it. Is there going to be some sort of Sealord deal on royalties that are collected from water-bottling and elsewhere?
Actually, we’ve been quite explicit. We’ve actually said we’ll settle the Treaty claim. You have to. The Waitangi Tribunal has said that you have to; the High Court has said that you have to. That came up when the current government was flogging off shares –

So they’ll get a portion of the royalty?
Yeah. They will, effectively.

How much?
Well, that’s a matter that you’ll have to negotiate with them. But the vast majority will go back to the regions. Not one cent stays with central government.

And you think you can do that without saying who owns the water?
Look, National says no one owns the water; I say everyone owns the water. Doesn’t take you very far. Some people have got interests in water that other people don’t have – that includes Maoridom; that includes people that have got a right to take water. Some of those rights are very valuable. We’re saying that for the likes of those water-bottlers, they should pay a small contribution.

Because to be fair to the government – they’re criticised for being slow on this stuff – but you need to go slow, don’t you? Because these are complex issues, and if you don’t go slow, you’ll end up with another Foreshore and Seabed if you don’t give Maori what they feel is their fair share of the water rights. 
Well, that’s a fair point, in respect of iwi interests. They do have to be resolved. But the going slow doesn’t mean to say you go backwards. National deliberately spiked the national policy statement that came out from New Zealand’s chief planning judge after they got into government. It said a significant increase in livestock intensity, converting to a dairy farm should no longer be permitted activity. Since then, we’ve had a million extra cows, each producing the equivalent effluent of 14 people, just about all of which goes on to the land, and much of which gets into the water ways.

Why should Maori trust the Labour Party? Because it didn’t work out so well for them on the Foreshore and Seabed.
We’ve been explicit that we will settle the treaty claim that is recognised by the Waitangi Tribunal. No one else is saying that.

Yes, but why should they trust that you’ll be able to give them? It just looks like it could easily end up in court again, couldn’t it?
I actually think people should always have a right to go to court if they’re dissatisfied with what the government’s doing. So I’m not going to take that right away from them.

Your last Labour government removed that right. 
That was the big mistake that we made in Foreshore and Seabed. That’s the same mistake that the current government made in respect to the Kermadecs, and we criticised them for it. New Zealand has to work this issue through. You actually have to do that in consultation with Maoridom. There’s actually two views within Maoridom – some Maoridom say, ‘Look, just give us a share of the water royalty’ ; other Maori say, ‘Look, we actually want some water.’ Both of them actually want to clean up our rivers. So I don’t think there’s anyone in New Zealand that doesn’t want to clean up our rivers. And if the farmers are coming along and saying, ‘Look, we, having caused the problem, we’re not willing to make a contribution to that effort.’ Really, what would that say about them as a sector?

One last question. In the last Labour government, we had the Fart Tax over the greenhouse gas emissions. Tractors on the streets, up the steps of Parliament, the government got cold feet, came out with some sort of compromised arrangement. Again – why should people trust that Labour will see this through in the face of farmers who will be outraged?
Well, look, at this time in the election season, Federated Farmers don’t bat for us – neither do Hort New Zealand.

Yeah, but you wait till you’re in government. I want to know. Will you stand up to them? Because the last time, it didn’t. 
I’ve fought many decades of my life fighting for clean rivers. I really feel this. I don’t like the fact that when I float down a river on a tyre or float my kids down, I have to question whether I put my head under. I’m determined to fix this.

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