Rural confidence was at a record low before Covid-19 struck. Phil Edmonds talks to current and prospective rural members of parliament about the issues in the upcoming general election.

Ask farmers for views on how they’re represented in parliament and there’s a chance, albeit a reasonably good change, the reaction will be unfavourable.

Being suspicious of politicians is not a trait unique to farmers of course, but over the past three years there’s been plenty of negative sentiment expressed about the Government failing to listen.

This is no better evidenced than in rural confidence survey findings. A Rabobank survey released prior to Covid-19 showed 91% of the farmers who expected the agricultural economy to deteriorate cited Government policy as the key reason for holding this view – the highest proportion in the survey’s history.

Some cause for that wallowing sentiment has been attributed to farming and rural community voices not being reasonably considered in Wellington. But is this fair, and what prospects are there for it to change in the next parliament?

The accusation of not being listened to is one Masterton-based MP Kieran McAnulty and Labour spokesperson for rural communities, says is not the case.

“It’s fair to say that in the past there hasn’t been a strong rural presence in Labour’s caucus, but there is now, which is something the party made sure of when forming its list in 2017. I have no doubt I was picked in the position I was because I was able to bring a strong connection to rural communities.”

McAnulty says Labour has a specific rural caucus, consisting of cabinet ministers Damien O’Connor and Stuart Nash, MPs Kiri Allan from East Coast, Jo Luxton from Rangitata, and others who might be based in an urban area but have rural focuses including Liz Craig in Invercargill and Angie Warren-Clark and Jan Tinetti in Bay of Plenty. The group meets every sitting week and reports to the whole parliamentary party every caucus as a standing agenda item and is able to influence policy positions.

On the face of it, this group might not appear to be ‘farmer central’ but its significance as an influential voice has been endorsed by PR expert Mark Blackham, who noted last year its members may not have direct farming backgrounds, but they consciously want to engage and represent rural voices and make a mark.

On the other side of the house, there’s no sense of a deficit in farmer representation, but there are still challenges.

National MPs have always dominated the representation of rural New Zealand in terms of electorates and there is an expectation that National provides the voice of farmers in parliament as a matter of course.

Former NZ Young Farmer of the Year and first-term Waikato MP Tim Van de Molen, however, acknowledges farming voices are in a minority.

“If you look at parliament, it’s a reflection of broader New Zealand – the numbers of people involved in agriculture are falling and it’s fair to say that in our party we haven’t got the same connection to farming that we might have had 50 years ago.”

While he doesn’t have cause to educate MPs in his own party, he suggests that as a farming MP he does feel the need to remind those in Wellington that farming is evolving, and methods used now are not the same as those used 10 or 20 years ago.

One of parliament’s other first-term farmer MPs, NZ First’s Otago-based Mark Patterson, has a similar sense of that responsibility.

“It’s a constant challenge to get farmers' concerns heard because we are a minority, and that leads to a lack of awareness at times about how things wash up onfarm. There’s only Damien O’Connor and myself on the Government benches that have come from a farming background and the Minister for Agriculture has been an MP for 27 years, so it’s been a while since he’s pulled the boots on.”

It is difficult to definitely state the number of MPs in parliament that have farming experience, and with it an ability to speak with authority on the community’s concerns.

MPs’ biographies can tend to be embellished with wide-ranging life experiences, and they are of course always eager to preface their views on any given issue with a reference to their credibility. Recently, arch-urbanite and National finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith reminded listeners to a rural media programme that he was a townie, ‘but his mother’s family were cockies from Waikato’.

In some senses effective politics is not just about advocating for your own constituents but building coalitions of shared voices, and despite the divisiveness of some Government policy proposals during this term, there have been examples where MPs with rural interests have worked together for the national farming community.

Of all the select committees that consider proposed legislation the Primary Production Committee has typically been one of the more agreeable. Current members Kieran McAnulty and Mark Patterson both believe there have been instances within the last three years where legislation has been improved with rural communities in mind, and that has been a direct result of collaboration across parties.

“It is certainly 100% collaborative now that we have National’s Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger as chair. When she took over from David Bennett (who has become the opposition agriculture spokesperson), we sat down and said let’s put politics aside and work constructively,” McAnulty says.

Among the Committee’s cross-party achievements, McAnulty picks out the way it addressed livestock rustling.

“Rangitikei MP Ian McKelvie presented his bill and there was support in the committee for it, but unfortunately the way it was drafted, the outcome couldn’t be achieved, and the Government had to pull its support. But subsequently we worked to incorporate the intent of the bill into the Crimes Act review and get it across the line. It was a good example of collaboration, to the benefit of rural communities and was politics at its best.”

Patterson says the committee is incredibly productive and a constructive space for farming issues to be examined. There’s been some excellent recent examples of that including work on the Farm Debt Remediation bill and the Dairy Industry Restructuring Amendment Bill, which was passed into law at the end of July.

“Both pieces of legislation have been changed due to constructive discussions where everyone wants the best outcome, and everyone working together to put the best piece of legislation before the parliament.”

That said, it wouldn’t be politics if there wasn’t disagreement, and there has been plenty of visible signs of division which reflect a widely held view that some key policy decisions have not been made with farming interests in mind.

As a former member of the Primary Production select committee, Van de Molen’s observation is that while MPs may share farming interests, there remain clear lines between parties on how they are best represented.

“Most in parliament understand that farming has a key role to play in New Zealand, but there are varying views on how it should be managed. There are plenty of different perspectives by party on environmental issues and who should be taking responsibility for that.

“I don’t think rural voices are being heard well enough by the Government, which is primarily representing an urban constituency, and this has an impact on policy decisions. We’ve seen that from the start, with biodiversity and freshwater.”

Clearly the Government’s moves to address freshwater quality has been a key dividing line among parties.

“The environmental issue is the big one and front of mind for most in farming. We have got to make sure from a legislative perspective, we are providing the scope for our farmers to adapt. Not just waving a big stick,” Van de Molen says.

In contrast, McAnulty (predictably) believes the Government’s freshwater approach has landed in a place that has taken account of farmers' concerns.

“We were obviously wanting to find a way to achieve what everyone wants. Right throughout we had opponents who said Labour hates farmers. The initial reaction was hostile but by the end of the process we were talking about nuts and bolts. In some instances, the direct feedback from farmers contributed towards the proposals being modified.

“We have listened to farmers, taken their concerns on board, put requirements on urban authorities to improve as well, and found a middle ground.”

Looking to the election and beyond, Patterson and Van de Molen agree water quality and water storage will be top of mind for farmers considering their vote and what the years ahead might look like under the next Government.

‘If I get in, I will not go with the intention of sitting at the back of the room. I am going to stand up for the people that have surrounded me my whole life. We have absolutely got to make sure we are heard and that the policies decisions aren’t detrimental to us.’

Van de Molen says water storage will be something National will be looking closely at. In addition he says National will be looking at workforce issues, and whether we have the right mix of migrant workers coming in to support the industry. He notes the Government has done some good work around making apprenticeships free, and the work to improve the attractiveness of dairy jobs with DairyNZ is a good step. But National will be wanting to look again at the move to centralise vocational training and take away regional knowledge.

Patterson says water storage will be a key one. “There has been a perception that irrigation just results in mass dairy conversions when that is not necessarily the case at all. We are now looking at a much more diverse use, so that many more options and payoffs for the wider community are significant – not just onfarm but into the wider community.”

In terms of policy, Patterson is also firmly behind the direction presented in the Government’s primary industries ‘Fit for a Better World’ strategy, which focuses on boosting exports by raising the value of the food and fibre NZ produces. A further key focus is improving pathways to farm ownership.

“It is the absolute cornerstone of rural communities and we need to re-create that pathway so people can come in without having a family background and own their own piece of dirt. Rural communities are much stronger when they see regeneration in farm ownership, and it’s primarily young people who drive the innovation onfarm and are open to changes that we need to make.”

Labour’s McAnulty is excited by the prospect of being able to address one of the other key concerns raised by farmers during this term of Government – the increasing incidence of full farm conversions to forestry. Labour has a policy it is promoting, one developed 14 months ago, but was unable to progress without the support of NZ First. Labour says it will revise the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry to require forestry blocks larger than 50 hectares on ‘elite soils’ to get resource consent, a move that Federated Farmers say is a step in the right direction.

“If we are successful at the election, we will have a process of consultation like with any other issue. While people might not whole-heartedly agree with what we are proposing there will be an opportunity to listen to those views, and if we can make it more workable we will do that, but the point is we don’t want highly valuable pasture land converted to forestry.”

As to the prospect of a stronger farming voice in the next parliament to carry on the work done by those there at the moment, NZ First’s Patterson has some concerns.

“It does concern me that safe rural seats are increasingly taken up by people without hands-on farming experience. And we’re about to lose more with the retirements of National MPs Nathan Guy, David Carter and Amy Adams. People that are actually coming off or living onfarm being replaced by people with more tenuous links. Not that they are bad MPs but farming is still a huge part of our future, particularly now when it is the only part of the economy that has really got the wind in its sails. Those voices need to be heard, particularly when we are coming up against new challenges.”

Among those mindful of Patterson’s concern, and hoping to do something about it is the Wairarapa electorate’s new National candidate Mike Butterick, who has been the Meat and Wool Chair of Wairarapa Federated Farmers and was the original spokesperson for the provincial lobby group ‘Fifty Shades of Green’.

Butterick is full of purpose in wanting to speak up for rural communities, who he feels have been let down in parliament.

“A disappointing outcome over the past three years is that farmers have become a bit bewildered. Despite being world class in what we do, farming communities feel like they have been unfairly picked on. And as a farmer, I don’t think our story has been heard, and possibly been hijacked by a small minority. As farmers we’ve made significant investment in terms of environmental initiatives, but it seems to be ignored. We are very good custodians of our land and we need a bit of balance back on that.

“If I get in, I will not go with the intention of sitting at the back of the room. I am going to stand up for the people that have surrounded me my whole life. We have absolutely got to make sure we are heard and that the policies decisions aren’t detrimental to us.

“I like to think I’ll be able to bring a grassroots approach. I know there will be surprises and frustrations but politics is about relationships, just as running a business is. It’s about being able to get on with people and changing the conversation if your message is sensible and based on reality. My sole motivation is to get good outcomes for the electorate, and by default all of provincial New Zealand.”

SPOTLIGHT ON THE WAIRARAPA ELECTORATE

The Wairarapa electorate is the fourth-largest in the North Island. In addition to the communities from Featherston to Masterton, it incorporates the Tararua towns of Pahiatua, Woodville, Dannevirke, and Norsewood, and the Central Hawke's Bay towns of Waipawa, and Waipukurau.

In the 2017 election, retiring National candidate Alastair Scott attracted 16,500 votes, ahead of Labour’s McAnulty with 13,600. This time, the seat promises to be one to watch with the new National candidate Butterick facing McAnulty and current Minister of Defence and NZ First MP Ron Mark. The Greens will be represented by former Wellington City mayor Celia Wade-Brown.

McAnulty says: “Essentially it is still a two-horse race. The Wairarapa seat has not always been National, and Labour has typically done well in second terms of Government and when there have been surges in party support. The Wairarapa electorate is a good place for Labour to promote its commitment to rural communities.

“Taratahi is a key issue in the electorate, and it has meant so much to the region. The process to re-establish it as a training centre following its closure has been frustrating but short-term courses have started, since Covid-19. I am pleased that it will be up and running again soon.”

Butterick says: “Post-Covid-19, the Wairarapa electorate is all about businesses and jobs, and water is absolutely critical. In the Wairarapa seat, water equals jobs. It’s an enduring spend and an enduring investment.