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The Australasian by NewsServices.com

  • Written by Hugh Campbell


Andrew Hoggard’s resignation in May as president of Federated Farmers, followed swiftly by his appearance high on the ACT Party’s candidate list, might have seemed seem like just another of the election’s minor subplots.

But this abrupt change of political hats represents the latest step in a 20-year journey that has seen one of the oldest and most powerful political alliances in New Zealand history begin to break.

For the first time in more than a century, farmers are not all in the same political paddock.

Farming has long defied gravity as an electoral force in New Zealand. Despite comprising less than 5% of the population, farmers have achieved an extraordinary level of political power.

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This has had less to do with the kind of agrarian populism of the 19th and 20th centuries that has fascinated political scientists, than with careful alliance-building and a unity of purpose: “We are all in this together.”

But that can no longer be said of the farming sector, which is undergoing a transformation with significant implications for New Zealand’s broader political landscape.

 

The end of farmer power

For most of the 20th century, pastoral farming was the most important economic sector in New Zealand. Farmers solidified their influence by capturing both the formal mechanisms of government – through a close alliance with the National Party, and indirectly through important quasi-governmental organisations like the Wool Board.

 
 

Under the old “first past the post” voting system, rural electorates held significant power due to left-leaning votes being concentrated in urban electorates. This meant the farming vote in key marginal rural seats could swing elections in favour of the National Party.

This became a conduit to power. Farmers progressed through farming organisations and boards to become rural MPs, cabinet ministers and even prime ministers. Between the 1920s and 1960s, around half the ministers in various cabinets were farmers. Of the past seven prime ministers, four grew up on farms.

No other country has seen such access to power granted to farmers. Nor are there many countries where the political and economic interests of farming became so seamlessly aligned with the perceived interests of the whole nation.

Four things have progressively weakened this old alliance, moving farming from being powerfully situated in the political centre to becoming a fractured site of increasingly divisive rural populism:

  • the economic blow of losing exclusive access to the British market for farm products in 1973

  • the neoliberal reform of the economy in the 1980s, with the disestablishment of the producer boards that had given farmers so much indirect access to government

  • the arrival of the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system, which immediately erased the disproportionately powerful electoral voice of a small number of rural voters

  • and the shifting environmental expectations of pastoral farming in New Zealand.

Read more: After the election, Christopher Luxon’s real test could come from his right – not the left


 

The old alliance crumbles

The rising environmental challenge in farming has three times been met by classic old alliance strategies. In 2003, the alliance mounted the so-called “fart tax” protests to denounce investment in research identifying methane from livestock as a major greenhouse gas problem.

In 2009, the Land and Water Forum was formed to respond to growing criticism of dairy farming’s impact on freshwater systems. This time, the alliance had new elements – being required to sit alongside leading Māori land users who were emerging from the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.

Finally, the Labour government in 2017 assembled He Waka Eke Noa, the “primary sector climate action partnership”, as a concerted attempt to negotiate greenhouse gas emissions in farming.


Read more: A new farming proposal to reduce carbon emissions involves a lot of trust – and a lot of uncertainty


Both the Land and Water Forum, and He Waka Eke Noa, partially succeeded in their key mission, and made tentative progress on developing new governance frameworks for environmentally managing farming.

However, the farming leadership of both groups – Federated Farmers, export organisations and farmer politicians – began to sense any progress was also leading to a significant loss of support for those actions among their farming base.

Many other rural sectors like kiwifruit, wine and merino wool had already moved successfully into new styles of environmental management.

But many pastoral farmers, particularly older ones in the hill country or highly indebted dairy farmers, began to see new environmental measures as a threat, rather than as an opportunity for New Zealand to retool farming for the 21st century.

Groundswell and political realignment

The Groundswell movement emerged from provincial New Zealand in 2021 to challenge the consensus-based world of the old alliance. It was partly emboldened by the radical tactics farmers in the Netherlands were using against government and European Union measures to manage agricultural nitrates.

Those colourful and angry protests were shared online among farmers around the world, and Dutch farmers began to feature as heroes in culture wars against perceived government overreach.

For people focused specifically on the urgent need to develop new policy frameworks, Groundswell can seem confusing. That’s because its actual proposals to address greenhouse emissions are not dissimilar to those of Federated Farmers and many other farming participants in He Waka Eke Noa.


Read more: The Groundswell protest claimed regulation and taxes are unfair to farmers – the economic numbers tell a different story


But the key difference is Groundswell’s style of political engagement. It wants to radically break with the old political and institutional relationships it believes have betrayed the interests of grassroots farmers.

That pressure saw Beef and Lamb NZ chair Andrew Morrison – an important player in the He Waka Eke Noa discussions – lose his position to a candidate backed by Groundswell and Southland Federated Farmers. Other key actors in He Waka Eke Noa began to withdraw, either under pressure from Groundswell or (like Andrew Hoggard) to pursue a more radical political path.

This battle within the farming sector has now spilled into realignments in wider electoral politics.

The National Party initially supported a bipartisan approach to mitigating agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. But under pressure from increasing support for ACT in rural New Zealand, it has backed away from collaborating.

The old rural alliance has lost its natural political home within the National Party. ACT is openly campaigning against current agricultural emissions pricing policies, claiming the government has tried to “sacrifice [farmers] to the climate gods”.


Read more: 11,000 litres of water to make one litre of milk? New questions about the freshwater impact of NZ dairy farming


Change and consequences

Given how MMP works, the fracturing of the old alliance may not alter the overall electoral map. But there are still important consequences of a more radical style of politics taking root among some farmers.

Any diminishing of those old alliance relationships will reduce the political reach of farmers. The alliance worked very well to amplify the political power of pastoral farming. Without that, it could become just another noisy lobby group.

Pragmatists within farming leadership and in export organisations understand the future of foreign markets. There may well be a reckoning if the actions of a radicalised and aggrieved group of pastoral farmers compromise the ability of agricultural export industries to meet new environmental demands.


Read more: Farmers need certainty over emissions pricing – removing government from the equation might help


Ultimately, consumers will have their say. Supermarkets in the UK, Europe and elsewhere won’t be listening to protests about “government overreach” and “unworkable environmental regulations” when sourcing food products with a better carbon footprint. They’ll just buy from elsewhere.

The old farming alliance may have been less than transparent and viewed as conservative by many urban New Zealanders. But it was nonetheless a powerful mechanism for engaging with rural New Zealand. It was still the best mechanism for meaningful change in the sector.

He Waka Eke Noa collapsed because the farming and political leadership couldn’t carry enough of the pastoral farming world forward into the new environmental reality.

Those chafing at change might imagine they are trying to preserve an older world in which farmers were revered and privileged. Ironically, they may actually be undermining the alliance of relationships that underpinned that prior happy state.

This article first appeared in The Conversation and is republished with permission.

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