Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Key faces more colds as farming sneezes

The prompt for that was Fonterra's announcement that the milk price forecast had dropped to $3.90 a kilo. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The prompt for that was Fonterra's announcement that the milk price forecast had dropped to $3.90 a kilo. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It was an ominous sign when Prime Minister John Key wandered into his weekly post-Cabinet press conference and announced, "I've got a bit of a head cold."

The very next day Labour's Grant Robertson was asking Finance Minister Bill English about Key's observation that "when the primary sector sneezes, the New Zealand economy catches a cold".

The prompt for that was Fonterra's announcement that the milk price forecast had dropped to $3.90 a kilo.

So far National has been almost dangerously cavalier in the face of questions on the farmers' plights. English and Key have made reassuring noises but at times sounded almost laissez-faire about the state of the dairy sector.

English conceded the fall in the milk price has brought the dairy sector into the "severe" forecast of Treasury. But his response to questions about Fonterra advising its suppliers it would not pay them for up to three months rather than one month amounted to saying suppliers could like it or lump it, Fonterra was acting within the law.

Law or not, it was an astonishingly unsympathetic approach given the struggle smaller suppliers now face in waiting for payment.

Despite the apparent determination to appear zen about the price of milk, you can bet National's feet are paddling like the clappers beneath the surface. That is because when the farmers sneeze, National gets a cold. That sneezing is becoming a chorus and they're certainly not saying "bless you".

The Government is almost helpless to lift the milk price. But as talk of farmers being forced to walk off their land and farm values slumping grows it is a fair bet National's rural MPs are copping it about the chops from their constituent farmers.

National is the traditional party of farmers but Labour has sensed blood and Parliament has been treated to the sight of its two urban liberals, Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern, taking up the cudgels on behalf of the farmers. Robertson mocked Key for his prediction in 2014 that dairy prices would "bottom out" soon. In return, Key mocked Robertson for his failed leadership bids and scoffed about him putting on a show of being "the friend of the farmer", adding it was "not going to fool anyone."

Key might want to look as if he's taking it more seriously. National will not be overly concerned Labour will run off with the farmers' votes. The greater concern is the fate of the votes of those downstream from the farmers. When the farmers stop spending, so does the spending of those who service the farmers. It's a bit like the little old lady who swallowed the spider to catch the fly. If the farmers aren't buying tractors, the tractor sellers aren't buying new shoes and the shoesellers aren't buying icecreams. On and on it goes.

When it comes to the farmers, a greater concern to National is that more sinister Pied Piper, NZ First leader Winston Peters.

Peters has spent the past year since his Northland win rolling about the country trilling, "Help is on its way." He has seeded himself as the guardian of the protest vote in the regions. The current conditions are ripe compost for Peters to flower.

Unlike the Northland byelection, he doesn't even have to bother trying to convince those rural people they're hard up any more. Admittedly the solution Peters has put up so far is for New Zealand to recommence free trade talks with Russia and bugger being part of the international condemnation of Russia over the Ukraine. To that, all Key had to say was Peters might be better off supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership if he wanted to help the farmers.

But National is on weak ground here in several respects. Peters has made the most of wedge politics between Auckland and the regions. If there is a swarm of foreigners to buy up cut-price farms Peters' old fashioned rhetoric about the evils of foreigners might sound a lot better to rural dwellers than National's more nuanced mumbling about foreign investment helping regional growth.

He might only chip away one or two points in the polls from National. But the stronger he gets, the more likely National will have to deal with him if it wants to stay in Government after 2017.

That's a lot of head colds ahead for Key. He might want to revisit his ban on pseudoephedrine-based cold medications.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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