Politicians should listen, or expect a rural backlash

Waikato Federated Farmers president Chris Lewis says the big political swings seen in the UK and USA were the revenge of ...

Waikato Federated Farmers president Chris Lewis says the big political swings seen in the UK and USA were the revenge of the rural voter.

OPINION: 

It's been hard work being a farmer in the last few months.

We've had low commodity prices, issues around future access of our products to Europe post-Brexit, the Healthy Rivers plan change getting notified and the ensuing implications for farmers of those new rules, Trump gaining office and now the earthquakes that woke the whole of New Zealand.

For my family, it was everyone awake and just water sloshed out of our pool.

Politicians need to connect with rural voters if they are to avoid an anti-establishment vote in next year's general ...
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Politicians need to connect with rural voters if they are to avoid an anti-establishment vote in next year's general election.

Spare a thought for some of our farming colleagues in the South Island. They face another massive clean-up hard on the heels of drought and other hardships.

I would like to praise my provincial counterparts in the South Island who have shown leadership, alongside the Feds' 0800 helpline team, directly supporting and fronting up on the problems in North Canterbury. The Waikato feels the pain of those badly affected by the quakes and gives you our support.

But the focus of this piece is politics - the kind we have seen in the UK and USA.

It's clear from those who crunch the data from polling stations, and those in the know who comment on the results, that a big part of the swing from voters opting for something new has been the rural vote, trades people from the rust belt and others voting anti-establishment.

They're sick of PC rubbish and the lack of love coming from politicians who are worried about city issues, such as housing. Some call it the revenge of the rural voter.

Could the same thing happen here in our general election next year? You would have to say yes if you were a betting man.

Rural communities have been feeling the strain. The money has not been coming in, we face new laws such as in health and safety, not to mention environmental change, attacks from nut jobs with cameras, and so on.

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I could fill this column with the bulldust we have to deal with as our organisation gets on with defending farmers' rights to go about their day job and their way of life.

None of the four main political parties look particularly active in terms of pitching their policies at farmers.

Labour and the Greens are quiet, mainly concentrating on light rail and housing issues in Auckland. National and New Zealand First make some reasonable noises, but is that enough?

It's always easier when you are in government to get the headlines but there is little for a fed-up farmer to rally to at the moment.

There are other minor parties, including a new one with an anti-cat flavour, spreading the gospel from a person who has made all his money and doesn't need to get back on the tools to pay a mortgage and grind it out like rest of us.

So that's my challenge to politicians and rural voters. We need to connect next year. Agriculture is the sector that more than any other earns New Zealand's crust in the world.

If aspiring political candidates want the attention of rural folk they need to focus on:

  • Employment - get plenty of trade skills funding back in place and help youths in rural communities with education and upskilling so they can become real contributors to society by having the skills to work on farms and in local manufacturing;
  • Trade deals are important. Get them over the line, with real, tangible benefits for New Zealand or don't sign up;
  • Water and environment - farmers all want cleaner rivers and healthy land. Invest in science, research and development, and have practical local rules that balance local economy, community and environment fairly. If there were sensible national rules, individual councils wouldn't have to think them up with their own boffins, who are sometimes driven by their own agendas.
  • Health and Safety - make sure the rules are realistic, enforceable and above all fair. Don't stop mum and dad farmers from taking their kids out on their land.

Politicians need to engage with Federated Farmers and its members or there will be a protest vote in 2017.

  • Chris Lewis is Federated Farmers Waikato President

 - Stuff

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