Jamie Mackay: Can Jacinda Ardern take the farmers of the nation with her

OPINION: Jamie Mackay, host of New Zealand’s flagship rural radio show The Country, starts a monthly column from today looking at the big issues facing the sector.

Farming eh? As the old saying goes, if it was easy everyone would be doing it. As it turns out, there are a number of people in Wellington at the moment telling farmers how to do it. Thus, in the process, making farming anything but easy!

Farmers certainly face plenty of headwinds in David Parker’s environmental space. But the upside is the future opportunities presented by sustainably feeding the discerning top end of a burgeoning 9-10 billion population are almost limitless.

From that perspective, our little island nation is uniquely situated, providing we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot in a fit of pious and zealous environmentalism at any cost. A goose, a golden egg and a senseless execution spring to mind. As do goose-stepping politicians.

I say this without fear or favour, because I’m an environmentalist too. I suspect I’ve spent more of my own money protecting wetlands and planting trees than many of the Green MPs in Parliament. And my contribution is minimal compared to that of some farmers who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars – whether by retiring wetlands, planting native trees or the riparian fencing of waterways – to improve the environment. In some cases, it’s millions, by retiring land or putting it into a QEII Covenant to protect it in perpetuity.

There was no finer example of that generosity this week, than the gifting of an iconic Queenstown landscape at the foot of the Remarkables Range to the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust (QEII). Dick and Jillian Jardine, owners of Remarkables Station, have gifted ownership of 900ha to QEII, ensuring the significant landscape and biodiversity on the property is protected forever on behalf of all New Zealanders.

As a former farmer and the host of a rural radio show, I know farming and I get farmers. By their very job description, they’re environmentalists, guardians of land many of them will never sell. But like any subset of the population there are bad ones who let the team down. I put that number at about 5 per cent. Mind you, if I look at our House of Representatives, I think I could easily find six out of 120 MPs to get my 5 per cent quota of those who are also dragging the chain.

However, whether you like or loathe his politics, Parker is one of the smarter ones in the Beehive. My message, or rather plea, because he’s holding all the cards, is for him to take farmers with him. Use a carrot. Don’t beat them with a big stick.

Ultimately, we all want the same result. It’s how we get there, and the timeframe involved, we need to get a meaningful consensus on. Parker is right. We got past peak dairy in many regions of the country in the past couple of decades. Some of the wintering practices, especially the further south you go (where they can’t grow grass through June, July and August), were not acceptable.

I am, though, buoyed by the Prime Minister’s soothing tones earlier in the week when addressing the Primary Industries NZ Summit. And that was because she now faces an intriguing political play at play here!

In her wildest dreams Jacinda Ardern would never have contemplated a rural red tsunami party voting Labour. Farmers are now her constituency by right. She has a moral and financial obligation to look after the goose that lays the golden egg. Even more so when you consider tourism has been completely laid (euphemism for a stronger word) low by Covid. Her eggs are now in the farming basket.

I interviewed her on my radio show, The Country, this week and put it to her that, if Shane Jones was the self-anointed Prince of the Provinces, then she surely now takes over the mantle of the PM of Provinces?

I’m a born and bred Southlander who now resides in Dunedin. Never in my lifetime did I ever think true-blue Southland (formerly Clutha-Southland) would party vote anything other than National.

Legend has it that in the 1969 election, when Kiwi Keith Holyoake stormed to a fourth term in office, there was an almost-inquisition in the little farming community of Riversdale that I grew up in. Apparently, when the numbers were published from the local school polling booth, someone had dared to vote Labour in our village. The culprit was never found! And in a quirk of fate, my classmate from the said same Riversdale Primary School, Penny Simmonds, is now the new National MP for Invercargill.

Whether Penny will see out her political days as a toothless, backbench Opposition MP ultimately depends on Jacinda, rather than Judith. If the PM can blunt Parker’s teeth, and take the farmers of the nation with her, she could be here for some time to come.

Tune into The Country on GOLD AM, Newstalk ZB, Hokonui & online via iHeartRadio for more rural news.

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