Almost below the radar, the country’s rural heartland electorates have been the scene of an intense electoral contest between the three centre-right parties, National, ACT and NZ First.
The electorates are the bedrock on which the National Party has been built, but this election saw a serious assault on them, particularly from ACT.
The end result is that some currently rank among the electorates, showing the smallest swing to National.
The median swing from Labour to National was 18.27%.
Tutkituki, Southland, Rangitikei, Kaikoura, Coromandel, Waitaki, East Coast, Taranaki King Country, Northland, and Wairarapa all recorded swings below that median.
No rural seat beat the median. In contrast, National’s big “swingers” were largely Auckland urban seats with high home ownership where mortgage rate increases will have been a critical factor.
|Swing to National in rural seats||Top 10 swings to National|
|Taranaki-King Country||16.04||Christchurch East||29.02|
|East Coast||16.07||Mt Roskill||29.57|
|Kaikoura||17.30||East Coast Bays||15|
National had an ongoing problem during its last term with the rural vote partly because it had difficulty finding a gumboot-wearing farmer to be its agriculture spokesperson.
It tried David Bennett, who was a farm owner rather than a practising farmer; it got near a solution with Todd Muller, who had a strong record in agri-business, but it ended up with Todd McClay, who is not a farmer but whose Overseas Trade and hunting and fishing portfolios were seen as partly compatible.
ACT had a working dairy farmer, Mark Cameron, as its spokesperson and then headhunted the previous President of Federated Farmers, Andrew Hoggard, to be a candidate and be placed high enough on the party list to make it to Parliament.
NZ First doesn’t so much appeal to farmers as the rural workforce that they employ.
But they have the respected Mark Patterson, the president of Otago Federated Farmers, returning as an MP.
National has remedied their lack of farmers by having four newcomers, Grant McCallum, Suze Redmayne, Miles Anderson and Mike Butterick, win their seats at the election. All four are working farmers.
All up, it means that the three government parties will have seven farmer MPs, but only two (Cameron and Patterson) have previous Parliamentary experience.
That begs the question as to who might become the Minister of Agriculture.
Would National keep it with McClay, or would they give it to NZ First and Patterson?
If they decided to give it to ACT, who would get it: the experienced MP, Mark Cameron or the first termer, Hoggard?
Speaking yesterday on “The Country”, Hoggard batted away questions about any Ministerial ambitions he might have.
“I’ll leave that up to the negotiators to work on,” he said.
Northland MP Grant McCallum was a little more forthcoming in backing McClay for the job.
“Todd’s our spokesperson, doing a great job, and he did a great job over the election campaign for us,” he said.
“And I’m sure if he gets the opportunity, I know he will be honoured and do a fantastic job representing New Zealand agriculture both internally and externally because I know his other passion is trade, and he’s got experience in that space.
“So, fingers crossed. But that’s all above my pay grade.”
|Top electorates % share of vote|
|West Coast-Tasman||10.77%||East Coast||8.06%|
|Kaipara ki Mahurangi||10.48%||Kaikoura||7.74%|
|Tukituki||10.47%||Bay of Plenty||7.39%|
What is clear is that the reason the swing to National in the rural electorates was low was because both ACT and NZ First did well in those seats; the rural seats were their top-performing seats.
There are a host of issues that have troubled farmers over the term of the Labour government, mainly what many argue is excessive regulation, mainly for environmental purposes.
There is currently a debate about how to price agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, which under current legislation would have to start in 2025, but if an effective and workable alternative is not put forward, then farming would have to go into the ETS, which is almost universally opposed by farmers.
The agricultural sector put forward its own plan to reduce farm emissions, He Waka Eke Noa, but the government last year lost a lot of what support there was for it when they refused to allow credits for farm vegetation like stands of bush as carbon sinks.
The extreme Groundswell organization, with its tractor protests and backing from the Taxpayers’ Union, has declared that “ there is no place for an emissions tax on New Zealand agriculture.”
None of the three centre-right parties go quite that far.
A long-standing objection to He Waka Eke Noa among farmers has been a belief that New Zealand is getting ahead of its international competitors.
So ACT wants levies tied to those of our five main trading partners “to ensure there is a level playing field for growers and producers competing overseas.”
NZ First says it will not support emissions pricing in any form unless adopted by trading partners, “especially the European Union.”
National wants emissions priced by 2030 and comes near ACT’s overseas relativity proposal when it says methane prices would be set to reduce emissions without sending agricultural production overseas.
Resolving the emissions issue is likely to be a part of the coalition negotiations.
National will need to be conscious that it does enough to keep its current farmer support on side with the hope that it can win back that support over the term of the new government.