Some farming leaders question whether Government and the urban population are listening to farmers’ concerns. Phil Edmonds reports.

There is a sense that 2019 has marked a new low in Government-farmer relations. In September, following the launch of the Government’s freshwater policy intentions director of rural consulting firm BakerAg Chris Garland sent an open letter to the Prime Minister stating morale among the company’s farming clients is now as low as it was in the Rogernomics years of the late 1980s.

This has been reflected by others who have variously argued the Government simply isn’t listening. Andy Scott, chair of 50 Shades of Green, a group launched this year galvanised by the lack of happiness with a range of proposed policies by the Government says he believes there is now less representation of farming interests in parliament, driven by their decreasing population base.

Is there a firm basis to say the farming community’s status has evaporated, and they’ve lost their parliamentary voice? And if they have, is it possible to recover it?

First, parliamentary representation.

Public relations expert Mark Blackham has researched the occupational backgrounds of MPs over the past four governments, and says despite the general belief that farmers have lost their voice in parliament, there has actually only been a very small decline in the proportion of MPs with rural or farming backgrounds across all parties.

‘One of the things farmers value most in how they operate, is independence. If someone says you can only use this amount of that, and we will be monitoring what comes out the other end, then your sense of control over your destiny is decimated.’

Of MPs in the current parliament, 9% have rural backgrounds, compared with about 13% with business backgrounds.

There may have been little numerical change, but perhaps the perception exists because MPs with farming experience are not at the top table. Some have pointed to low Cabinet rankings of Ministers of Agriculture as an indication that the primary sector is increasingly neglected within the Government. In the current Coalition Government, Minister for Agriculture Damien O’Connor is ranked 16 out of the 17 cabinet ministers. In the last iteration of the previous National government, then Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy was ranked a modest 12th.

But Blackman says it is also a mistake to look at Cabinet rankings of agriculture ministers as a way of gauging the influence farming communities have had in government decision making.

“Somewhat surprisingly, even when you look back to the Cabinets of the 1950s and 1960s you find Ministers of Agriculture did not feature high in the rankings. That didn’t transpire into a deficit of influence because of the political mindset that agriculture was still such a big part of our community, and it was top of mind for everyone in the Cabinet, not just the responsible minister. Cabinets in the 1950s and 1960s were in fact over-represented by lawyers, but they knew they had to think about farming for the good of the nation.”

What of the suggestion that the alleged unfamiliarity with farming interests in the Government is broadly down to urbanisation?

Blackham says you can’t point to urbanisation as a reason for the current lack of representation of rural concerns because that really stopped in the early 1980s when the population shift plateaued.

According to Statistics NZ census data, 86.5% of New Zealand’s population lives in an urban area, and this proportion has not changed with any significance over the past 30-40 years. In 1991 for example, nearly 30 years ago, 85.5% of New Zealanders were recorded as living in an urban area.

“However, what you can say is that urbanisation has been ‘cemented’ over the last 40 years and as a result, political conversations have become dominated by urban concerns and issues. So even if the number of farmer MPs in parliament has not changed, their voices are less relevant up against urban concerns.”

Blackman says there was a perception that up about 30 years ago, the farming community had to be listened to because of how important it was to the nation – it was not just about numerical representation in parliament.

“That community’s importance hasn’t changed in terms of economics, but it certainly has in terms of social issues. And that is due to urban issues being placed at the heart of governments that essentially want to carry on governing.”

He points to the 1993 vote to change the electoral system as a key moment in the shift in relative importance MPs paid to rural and urban concerns.

The shift from first-past-the-post (FPP) to MMP was the catalyst for the increase of inexperienced list-only MPs, who came in owing all their allegiance to the party rather than a physical constituency. And without an electorate, list MPs were, and have been since obliged to find someone to represent, which has typically been specific interest groups.

This has probably been to the detriment of farming communities because they have traditionally been geographically united, which worked well in smaller FPP-era electorates, but less well in a system that has opened up representation to unified, nationally focused interest groups.

Blackman says the introduction of list MPs has increased the level of ‘elite’ experience in parliament, but not necessarily ordinary run of the mill experience. Almost all MPs, for example, have a university qualification, compared to 20% of the total population.

“The shift to MMP is where representation of the rural community began to fall.”

Public management lecturer from Massey University Andrew Cardow agrees, and thinks the farming community would have been better served under a single transferrable vote (STV) system, like that used in local government elections.

“If it had been adopted instead of MMP, it would have allowed groups like farmers or voters sympathetic to their concerns to organise into a distinct block.

“The STV proposal was defeated at the expense of MMP because it was not as easy to comprehend, which is a shame because MMP has meant the main parties have been able to retain power and convince the public that it doesn’t matter if an MP has a list or an electorate seat as long as they vote for the party.” And of course, the larger the party, the more it focuses on aggregate numbers of voters.

What of the claim made by Garland and others, that farmers are now having to operate in an environment as overwhelming as that experienced during the Rogernomics era of blanket removal of subsidies?

When considering the current plight with the 1980s, 50 Shades of Green chair Scott says “the 1980s was a particularly hard time economically. But that is not so much the case now. Farmers are economically well placed. However, psychologically farmers were better off back then as people felt for them. At the moment, you get the feeling that farmers are on their own.”

Blackman agrees current conditions pose a different and potentially more significant threat than those of the 1980s, but not necessarily due to an absence of wider support.

“The struggle in the 1980s reform era was all about economics, but this was something farmers could control. In most cases they had a choice to either dig in or exit with some support from the government. The difference between then and now, is that changes being currently talked about affect decision making on how they run their farm, so farmers’ control of their own destiny is in some sense at very strong risk.

“One of the things farmers value most in how they operate, is independence. If someone says you can only use this amount of that, and we will be monitoring what comes out the other end, then your sense of control over your destiny is decimated.”

Blackman is less convinced about the claims that people don’t care about farmers.

“I don’t think you could say there is a marked difference in society-wide support. In fact, public opinion surveys show that support for farming is still standing around 80%. New Zealanders’ attitudes to farmers is still strongly positive.”

Indeed, findings from a study released by UMR Research in September showed New Zealanders are more likely to have a positive view of farmers than negative. Most views on all primary sectors were positive and UMR concluded that the idea that farmers were not liked by urbanites is “simply not true.”

All that said, there remains a problem. Farmers are not about to accept the fatalistic logic of the electoral system and simply bow out knowing they’ll never match the weight of urban votes.

So what effective options are open to farmers to advance their cause?

Both Blackham and Cardow say protest is absolutely an effective means of taking action.

“It’s been proven time and time again that physical protest is effective at raising awareness,” Cardow says. “Farmers in Europe do this tremendously well. You only have to look at the level of coverage generated by the recent climate change protests. There are also plenty of experiences of physical protest in New Zealand that have eventually led to legislative change – protest against nuclear powered warship visits, and for homosexual law reform in the 1980s.

“More recently, the farmer protests against the proposed tax on livestock methane emissions in 2003 contributed to the decision by the then Labour Government to withdraw its planned introduction.”

Blackman is also supportive of physical protest but does offer some provisos.

“Shouting louder doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will agree with you. Communication isn’t just about being heard. It is about what you say, and how you say it. If you can combine the two things well, in a society with a proliferation of noise, then protests or gatherings can work.”

Blackman also says numbers count, so you need to be careful that you can deliver on expectations. “But from a pure communications point of view, people take notice of volume of opinion. We all judge how widely something is felt by volume. You only have limited ways of engaging beyond your normal sphere of influence, so how do you do that? You have to break out of the norm.”

Cardow agrees on numbers.

“To be effective, physical protest does need a high level of mobilisation. And you do need people singing from the same song sheet and acting in concert.”

In terms of other avenues of expressing concerns, Cardow says that while increasingly popular, the use of social media has very limited impact.

“Social media works well for reinforcement. People start talking to each other and reinforcing and rousing their own thoughts. But it has limited value outside that because neutral observers are not going to look at posts by farmers.

“They’re not going to join Facebook pages to better understand the issues or follow farmers on Twitter. Personally however, I would take notice if a whole lot of farmers drove their tractors down Lambton Quay. And I would probably take notice if a bunch of farmers sat down in the middle of Queen Street at lunchtime and stopped traffic or blockaded the entrance to Wellington airport.”

All this will be on the mind of 50 Shades of Green, which is organising a march on parliament for November 14 with a goal of getting its message heard by a larger audience.

“We’re aiming to present a petition with 100,000 signatures,” Scott says. “We don’t want to be like some previous marches, where there was intimidation. We just want to say you’re not listening to us, and we’re being overwhelmed by the change that is being put on us.”

Scott touched on the importance of being ‘well mannered’ about the protest. Getting the emotion right is one further factor that needs to be carefully managed to ensure success.

Blackham says articulation of the problem and the solution is the key.

“You don’t necessarily need to be angry for example, but it can work if it is well directed.” At the other end of the spectrum, ‘accentuating the positive’, is something recently established group Ag Proud has focused on.

Ag Proud NZ was formed this year to create awareness in the agricultural sector around mental health, and has hosted BBQs in Dunedin, Christchurch and Manukau with the aim of reaching out to urban communities. Explaining the Group’s activity, chair Jon Pemberton says “There’s a disconnect between rural and urban people. We are only interested in positive engagement … protests and shouting don’t work for either side.”

Ag Proud has made the assumption that you need to get people on side. But Blackham is not convinced it is entirely true if you go by the public opinion stats.

“I’m not sure the public has to be won over.” He suggests targeting politicians is still a better bet.

“I like positivity, but you have to be savvy with it. For example, there is corporate positivity and there is grass roots. Corporate tends to be a bit optimistic, and more about ‘going along’ with what is already being demanded of a sector whereas grass roots positivity in an ordinary way is effective. Ag Proud’s BBQs are a good example of this.” It is also likely to draw the attention of the likes of Agriculture Minister O’Connor, who has been fairly pointed about the lack of purpose in farmers complaining.

But Blackman also warns that being positive does come with one significant challenge – “Positive people are a pushover. Ultimately, you have to stand up for whatever it is you believe in.”

If direct engagement with politicians is still the most profitable form of getting your message across, where to for farmers who believe the circuit is broken?

Blackman suggests it is worth thinking about engaging with the main parties’ rural caucuses, rather than focusing on cabinet ministers fronting legislative changes.

“While some of the rural-focused MPs in these party groups don’t necessarily have the background that brings practical farming knowledge, they do want to be knowledgeable and are open to engaging and learning. This would be worth focusing on, because if you get a number of MPs who understand the challenges that some of those policy proposals throw up, it will stiffen their spines to stand up in caucus and say we should think again about whether this policy will have quite the impact or will have negative outcomes. The Labour rural caucus is definitely worth engaging with – there are certainly interested people there.”

Finally, putting this crisis of confidence in the Government in a wider context, perhaps there is a key lesson to be learnt from the 1980s juncture.

Much of the initial friction between rural NZ and politicians 35 years ago was because farmers bore the brunt of the reforms – they were negatively impacted in advance of other sectors. Some of those in charge at the time have since acknowledged that was unfortunate and could have been better managed. You could say a similar sense of unfairness exists now.

Implementing such deep and lasting changes (whether it be economic or environmental) are surely more likely to work with everyone buying in, and this requires the impact of change to be sequenced evenly across all sectors. Would farmers be more comfortable about what is being forced on them if they saw the aviation industry feeling the pain, and passengers feeling prohibited from air travel?

This article is free to view because it is a topic of high importance. This article was published in New Zealand Dairy Exporter magazine. For less than $10/month, you can receive this detailed information to help improve performance within your business. 
Supporting New Zealand journalism.