National’s appointment of Todd McClay as Agriculture spokesperson clearly signals that the party is in trouble with the farming vote.
McClay was not an obvious choice, but he does have a record as a political scrapper.
The party needs that because sources say it has been shedding farming votes to ACT and is also under attack from the rural populist movement, Groundswell.
And yesterday, it selected a well-known farming figure, Grant McCallum, as its Northland candidate.
POLITIK understands that McCallum told the selection meeting in Kaikohe that though the party presented itself as the friend of the farmer, the reality was that there was only one gumboot-wearing farmer (Ian McKelvie) left in the party’s caucus.
Thus the apparent difficulty in finding an appropriate replacement for Muller.
His retirement announcement on Friday was a surprise. He had been booked to front a joint meeting with Selwyn MP Nicola Grigg tonight. She will now appear on her own.
McLay is not and has never been a farmer.
He is not a member of Parliament’s Primary Production Committee and was not part of a four-person delegation from National that met with Federated Farmers as recently as last Tuesday.
National Leader Christopher Luxon said when announcing McClay’s appointment that it would bring together agriculture and trade, McClay’s long-standing area of responsibility.
But the big agriculture access issues in trade have now all been negotiated with the CPTPP and the UK and EU free Trade agreements.
There is no chance of an FTA with the United States, and any deal with India would be highly likely to exclude dairy.
“Very clearly, agriculture needs to be at the heart of our trade policy, and a trade policy needs to be at the heart of agriculture because we are an export nation, and unless all those two things are working well together, it’s very hard for the rural sector to dig us out or trade us out of that financial hole that our Labour government has dug,” he told POLITIK last night.
McClay has been critical of some of the trade deals negotiated by Labour, particularly the one with the EU, a view that is shared by prominent farming leaders and organisations like Fonterra.
“It’s a really good deal, except that the Minister let down beef farmers and dairy farmers because they virtually settled for less than we had before the negotiations started,” McClay said.
“I think he was pressured by the then prime minister to do a deal because they had to show the country they were doing things on the world stage again.”
However, National is under more pressure from farmers than a demand that it speaks out on the EU trade deal.
Groundswell has led a campaign against the dairy farm emissions pricing plan developed by 13 agriculture sector organisations led by DairyNZ and Beef and LambNZ.
They are currently backing Southland farmer Geoff Young, who is challenging Beef and Lamb NZ chair Andrew Morrison, in this week’s beef and Lamb board elections.
That election will be something of a litmus test of the support for He Waka Eke Noa among farmers, particularly sheep and beef farmers.
ACT is onside with Groundswell, and its agriculture spokesperson, Mark Cameron, has said that ACT does not support the inclusion of agriculture into any emissions pricing scheme.
Under Muller as spokesperson, National has supported He Waka Eke Noa and though it is critical of the pricing mechanism proposed, has not advocated pulling its support.
McClay raised some eyebrows in the rural sector when on Friday, he said he wanted to “kick the tyres” on the party’s climate change policy as it applied to agriculture.
The only thing that is clear at this stage is that the policy is going to be reviewed.
“It’s not a signal that there is a big change coming at National’s policy,” he told POLITIK.
“I think it’s just right with two new spokespeople to kick the tyres and say we want to have a look at that and talk with people on both sides of that discussion and then in a few weeks’ time come forward about exactly where we sit.”
But among National’s farmers, there is also a strong crossover into its environmental ginger group, the Blue Greens.
McCallum, who chairs the party’s agriculture policy committee, is also an executive member of the Blue Greens and, as a prominent rural commentator, has been strongly critical of Groundswell.
Muller, Mckelvie and another MP with strong farming connections, Barbara Kuriger, are also members of the Blue Greens.
However, McClay, who plays a role in the leadership political strategy team, is obviously conscious of the Groundswell-ACT threat.
“I think any party that takes a vote for granted, whether it be Labour in South Auckland or with workers or National and provincial areas, doesn’t understand how politics works,” he said.
“Each individual person who lives in a rural area or lives and works on a farm gets to make up their own mind how they will cast their vote in the next election.
“We know how they voted last time, largely for Labour to stop the Greens and for many people only these rural areas that I meet, they think Labour was worse than they imagined it would have been with the Greens.
“My job is to get out and talk directly to them through the media and farming meetings about the direction that we want to set under Chris Luxon and a National government.
“And I’m looking forward to the opportunity to do that.”
National is likely to have three new farmer MPs after the election. Suze Redmayne, a Whanganui farmer, has been selected for Rangitikei, and Miles Anderson, a former Federated Farmers Meat and Wool chair, has been selected for Waitaki. Both are safe National eats.
McCallum will have to win the Northland seat off new Labour Minister, Willow-Jean Prime, but the seat is the country’s most marginal, and she currently has a majority of only 163, which current polling suggests will not be enough to hold it.
The challenge for National now will be to reconcile the rural vote it is campaigning to win with the urban liberal vote who are more concerned about climate change.
National’s strategists are well aware of what happened to the Australian counterparts, the Liberals, at the hands of the urban independents, the so-called Teals, who won former Liberal votes on a climate change platform.