D-day in apple war
Hundreds of angry pipfruit growers were converging on Parliament today to ginger up the Government’s stance against Australian bans on their fruit.
Around 400 Hawke’s Bay orchardists met at Hastings rail station before dawn to head for Palmerston North, where they boarded a steam train to travel to central Wellington.
There they were to meet with four bus loads of South Island growers and march on Parliament and the Australian Embassy.
The mood on the train was buoyant as protesters practised their chant: “2, 4, 6, 8: Open the gate, mate!”
An organiser of today’s protest, Phil Alison, spokesman for the Australian Access Action Group, said growers hoped to put 700 marchers at Parliament in a bid to persuade the Government to take more direct action against the Australian government at the World Trade Organisation.
So far, the Government has only listed its complaint about the Australian trade barrier with a phytosanitary committee due to meet at the WTO next week.
But Mr Alison said that was not enough: “We want the Government to do more, such as suspending all discussion on closer economic relations between Australia and New Zealand at both ministerial and official levels.”
The action group was formed after Biosecurity Australia announced in February that there would be yet another delay in releasing the long-awaited new draft risk assessment report on imports of NZ apples.
It timed the protest for the anniversary of a high-profile demonstration in Australia last year when thousands of Victorian orchardists staged a mock “funeral” to mark the potential death of the apple and pear industries there.
The Australian growers claim imports of New Zealand apples would spread fireblight disease and wipe out their pipfruit orchards.
Mr Alison said New Zealand apples had been banned in Australia for 85 years and negotiations had been going on for 15 years now with very little result.
“We’re not comfortable with the Government’s action on this so we’re bringing some more pressure to bear.
“We think it’s time for more than wishy-washy tea and bickies talk.”
He said the Australian’s actions in blocking exports while preaching free trade and even chairing WTO groups was “diabolical hypocrisy”.
The ban costs New Zealand growers around $20-30 million a year, according to conservative “guestimates”, he said.
And the Australian market was ripe for the picking.
Rural reporter Rose Harding was making the train trip today and will have full coverage on the journey in tomorrow’s Hawke’s Bay Today.
Morale’s high as they steam to the front
Through the dark and the cold and the rain, the 400 fruitgrowers came.
Laden with chilly bins, wrapped in oilskins and wearing beanies, they converged on the Hastings railway station in the 5am gloom, kissed their ugg-booted wives goodbye and shoved their weathered hands deep in their pockets, waiting.
For 80 years, Australia had beaten them back, refusing to accept the fruits of their labours. Fireblight, the Aussies said, and continued to stall.
Being called childish, said organiser Rupert Ryan, had been the last straw. War was declared.
Thirty-four tractors were already on route to battle, loaded onto trucks and winding the slow, wet roads south to Wellington.
Soon, these brave men and women would follow, boarding the first troop train to leave Hawke’s Bay since World War 2. They left Hastings just before 6am, damp clothes fogging the windows as the train gathered momentum. But there were battlecries to practise and strategies to talk, and the journey to Palmerston North passed quickly.
There, troops were ordered to stay on the train as the old steamer Gloria was hitched to their carriages, ready to lead Hawke’s Bay’s finest into battle.
Those who couldn’t make the rail journey were heading south by bus, eager to make the midday deadline to meet their comrades at Parliament House.
Then, they would fight. They would play a game of underarm cricket outside the Australian High Commission, and present the high commissioner with a basket of the crispest, sweetest Hawke’s Bay apples. And glory would be theirs.
HB TODAY PICTURE DUNCAN BROWN
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