Farmers, their families and employees, along with provincial voters reliant on agricultural support industries, will be at the heart of determining the next Government — and also the likely unravelling of the present one.
The so-called Rural Revolt is playing itself out in provincial war memorial halls as farmers share their grievances with one another, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor, provincial champion Shane Jones and National's Agriculture Spokesman Todd Muller.
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On sheer numbers, undecided rural and provincial New Zealanders can't compete with undecided middle-income Aucklanders, but the current polling balance among the five parliamentary parties is magnifying their importance.
NZ First's hopes of survival and National's dreams of government both depend on maintaining and growing their rural and provincial vote. Act, which was once a force in rural New Zealand under Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide, is now much more an urban liberal party under David Seymour.
The Rural Revolt is not necessarily rational. Farmers claim to feel at least as under attack as when Labour scrapped subsidies and protection in the mid-1980s. Even ignoring the fact that those reforms turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to New Zealand agriculture and horticulture, the actual impact of the Ardern Government on farmers is so far negligible, prompting O'Connor to tell 400 Southland farmers to "get over it" at a recent water consultation meeting.
Driving the negativity is a series of proposals that farmers interpret as a full-scale attack on their businesses and way of life, despite them being the most economically, environmentally and carbon-efficient food producers in the world.
The Tax Working Group may have turned out to be a typical Ardern Government farce — in fact, taking serious tax reform off the table for a generation — but in the meantime, farmers heard that the Coalition wanted to tax them for owning land and using fertiliser.
Since then, farmers have heard — with varying degrees of accuracy — that the Coalition wants them to become the first in the world to be forced into an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS); that the Climate Commissioner and the Greens' James Shaw will be given Henry VIII-style powers to regulate their farming practices under the Zero Carbon Bill; that their access to water will be severely constrained; and that iwi are to be given even greater powers under proposed changes to the loathed Resource Management Act (RMA).
Along with Jones' One Billion Trees programme, farmers perceive there is a clear agenda — just as in the mid-1980s — to use economic tools to force land-use change in their communities, away from food production to carbon credits, wind farming, vast solar panels and tourism.
Rubbing salt into the perceived wound, when Jones arrives in town with cash from the Provincial Growth Fund to paint the local war memorial hall, farmers wonder what the point is, if no one will be left living in their communities.
Especially for sheep and beef farmers, but also for those in dairy, the message is that their contribution to the economy is no longer wanted, and they should retrain as baristas for the tourism industry.
Those who reflect further wonder about the Coalition's motives, given that everyone from the Prime Minister down knows that a reduction in New Zealand's food production will be taken up by farmers in Australia, the Americas and Europe who emit far more greenhouse gas per unit of production than they do.
Farmers feel under personal attack but in a way that would worsen climate change.
Adding further insult, farmers believe they are being made to pay more for fuel and vehicles to subsidise urban trams and electric vehicles for the Grey Lynn and Wadestown elite.
The reason this is largely irrational — at least ahead of a possible Labour-Green Government next year — is because NZ First can't allow any of it to happen.
National's Muller, the leading candidate to succeed Simon Bridges should Jacinda Ardern win a second term, wouldn't be human if he weren't flogging all these horses as hard as he can.
For its part, NZ First, which sits almost exactly on 5 per cent in most polls, can't afford to be outflanked by National on any of them.
The same goes in reverse. If NZ First formally decides not to back agriculture going into the ETS, the Henry VIII components of the Zero Carbon Bill and David Parker's water and RMA reforms, Labour can't expect any help from the blue team.
NZ First and National are locked in a strange embrace where, on issues affecting rural and provincial New Zealand, each has to adopt the most conservative position of the other.
The same dynamic is playing out over issues like drug testing at music festivals and the balance between carrot and stick in welfare.
This may not be to National's long-term advantage if it also wants to be credible with suburban Auckland, but that seems not to be the priority right now.
Still, it is certainly not to Ardern's short-term advantage as her "nuclear-free moment" green agenda unravels at least as humiliatingly as KiwiBuild.
Since I made the case for Ardern to consider an early election back in April, her personal ratings have fallen for five consecutive months according to UMR Research, which polls for the Labour Party. A similar pattern is observed in polling by C|T New Zealand, with traditional links to National.
Ardern will soon need to make a strategic choice.
Is she best to let events unfold with NZ First scuttling all the issues her core supporters care about most, backing herself to trounce Bridges whenever the next election is held, even if her favourability keeps falling in the meantime?
Or does her brand require her to take charge even before the end of the year, and make clear to Winston Peters that issues like climate change and water quality are absolute bottom lines, and that she would rather face the voters early than to cave in to NZ First once again?
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relation consultant and lobbyist.