Patrick Goodenough | Pacific Rim Bureau Chief | Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Opposition parties slammed the Kyoto Protocol-driven move, farmers threatened a nationwide revolt, and a new movement was quickly born.
Fight Against Ridiculous Taxes, with its obvious acronym, became the slogan of farmers' groups, meat processors, and others across the country campaigning to have the left-leaning government of Prime Minister Helen Clark drop the plan.
Announced last June, the proposal sought to charge sheep and cattle farmers a modest levy for each animal in their flocks and herds, saying it would use the money raised to fund research into ways of minimizing their gaseous emissions.
As livestock belch and emit wind, they release methane, and nitrous oxide is released from their waste. Both are "greenhouse gases" - the pollutants blamed by some scientists for global warming.
Because New Zealand is largely pastoral rather than highly-industrialized, its 45 million sheep and 10 million head of cattle produce more than 40 percent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions.
The flatulence tax idea was part of the Clark government's efforts to meet New Zealand's obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, which requires developed countries to reduce emission by specified amounts.
Although the government was initially adamant that the statutory levy would be charged, and said only the practicalities were subject to negotiation, it eventually backed down under pressure.
In a compromise reached with industry groups, Environment Minister Pete Hodgson and Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton have agreed that research already underway into ways of reducing methane emissions could get additional funding, and thus do away with the need for a levy on farmers.
The campaigners hailed the decision as a victory, although the government denied it was an "embarrassing u-turn" -- as claimed by opposition political parties -- saying the bottom line was that the research be undertaken, and that was happening.
The Federated Farmers of New Zealand, which spearheaded protests, welcomed the move, saying farmers had fought hard in recent months to show the government that the tax was a "ridiculous burden."
"Farmers will be relieved that the government looks to have finally got the FART tax out of its system," federation vice-president Charlie Pedersen said in a statement.
"Farmers said they would not pay the tax and only support research that made sense. As such abandoning the tax is a fantastic victory for farmers."
During the campaign, farmers staged noisy rallies and collected petition signatures, and were buoyed by an opinion poll last August in which 80 percent of respondents opposed the tax - a noteworthy result in a country with an influential environmental lobby.
In one memorable protest, an opposition lawmaker who is also a farmer drove an ancient tractor up the steps of the parliament building in Wellington.
Shane Ardern was charged by police for the stunt, and will appear in court again next month.
Commentators and headline writers had a field day, with such expressions as "ill wind," "raising a stink" and "a lot of hot air" getting plenty of play.
The Federated Farmers organized a poetry competition, inviting farmers to have share their thoughts on the tax in (mostly unpublishable) verse.
"I have never herd a cow break wind, but can't say the same for politicians," wrote one of many aspiring poets. "What about a tax on them, to be levied by our Friesians?"
Ardern, the tractor-driving parliamentarian, welcomed news of the government's back down, saying the proposal had turned New Zealand into an international laughing stock.
See earlier stories:
New Zealand Farmers Threaten Rebellion over 'Flatulence Tax' (July 3, 2003)
Kyoto 'Flatulence Tax' Plan Causes Turbulence in New Zealand (June 23, 2003)