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a boot shaped electorate tinged green with a photo of rakaia's poised salmon in the midle and an Election 2023 sticker
The big salmon at Rakaia, in the north of the Rangitata electorate (Photo: Shanti Mathias; design: Archi Banal)

PoliticsSeptember 13, 2023

The fight for the farming heartland of Rangitata

a boot shaped electorate tinged green with a photo of rakaia's poised salmon in the midle and an Election 2023 sticker
The big salmon at Rakaia, in the north of the Rangitata electorate (Photo: Shanti Mathias; design: Archi Banal)

In 2020, this once true blue seat flipped to Labour. Now, National is putting its faith in a fresh new face to reclaim the Canterbury electorate of Rangitata. 

Read the other battleground electorate profiles in our Hot Seats series here.

To those from elsewhere in the country, the distinction between South and Mid Canterbury is unimportant, if it exists at all: Timaru and Temuka, Methven and Mayfield, names usually perceived on highway signs green against broad fields. But to those campaigning to represent this region – the electorate of Rangitata – these distinctions matter, not least because they have to cover this area of 6,809 km2 in order to campaign. 

“I’ve clocked up a few thousand kilometres in my truck,” admits James Meager, 36 years old, a lawyer who grew up in Timaru and is standing for National. 

“Ashburton is more rural and focused on farming,” says sitting MP Jo Luxton, who became minister of customs in May. “Timaru is more urban and a manufacturing hub, so it’s quite diverse.” In between the two population centres – the electorate stretches between the gravelled twists of the Rakaia River in the north and Otipua/Saltwater Creek in Timaru – are what Meager describes as “an agricultural electorate, the parts of the economy that will pull us through a recession”. In other words, farms. 

That agricultural history is evident in Ashburton, a town of 35,000 split neatly by State Highway One. On the day The Spinoff visits, a balmy spring morning, the carpark in front of the Farmlands store is full and trucks filled with sheep thrum as they pull their ovine cargo along the road. The rail shunting yards, where train carriages are moved onto the right tracks (what Meager’s party intends to do for the country, presumably) are busy, preparing a move to a freight hub which will allow some of the truck cargo to be carried by trains instead. This change has been strongly advocated by Luxton, who’s keen to tell me about how she had to keep pushing senior ministers until the funding for the project was granted. 

a map of the sough island showing a boot shaped electorate around timaru and ashburton and stretching the the spiky southern alps
The Rangitata electorate (Image: Parliamentary Library)

Frustrated and undecided voters

On the streets of Ashburton, no one seems to know much about the candidates. “I’ve always voted for Labour, but this time I’m not sure,” a woman called Lynne, who recently moved to the area, tells me before walking into Life Pharmacy. 

Retailers are less confident. “I don’t like anyone, I might not vote,” says a shop owner called Sarah. “Jo Luxton – who’s that? That should tell you how much she’s done for this community.” Worried about the cost of rent for her business, she would like to see more space for children, something like a trampoline park, or a cafe in the local domain, or nice parks (usually the responsibility of the council, not the government) – anything to keep the youth entertained. “The poor teenagers, they’re so bored because there’s nothing to do, no wonder they’re ram raiding,” she says. Though she only knows of one such crime to have happened in Ashburton, she reckons that young people are driving to Christchurch to go ram raiding. 

A younger retail worker at a nearby store who doesn’t want to give her name agrees. “I like the military-style camps National is proposing for youth, they need more than a slap on the wrist. And you shouldn’t be able to get the benefit so easily,” she says, tidying shelves next to a God Save the King poster. 

Out on Ashburton’s main East Street, a man called Stefan has embraced the opportunity of the election to proselytise about the hoax of global warming, the UN and the teaching of evolution in schools. He’ll be voting for Liz Gunn’s party (NZ Loyal), he says, opening his to-scale replica of Noah’s Ark, filled with paired plastic animals. Evan, another passer-by, is delighted to find someone like-minded, and explains the importance of liver cleanses, eating brazil nuts, avoiding vaccines and the World Economic Forum and a grab-bag of other conspiracies. He’ll be voting for Winston Peters, the only person, in his view, who can help New Zealand return to the glories of the past. 

The potential voters are vacillating, but what of the candidates? There are seven people running in Rangitata, with representatives from the Green Party and New Zealand First, as well as less mainstream New Conservatives, New Nation and Rock the Vote. But as none of these groups got more than 1,000 votes in the previous election, if they existed at all, The Spinoff focused on the big two and gave Labour and National’s representatives a ring. 

a middle aged dark heaired woman in a black blazer with someone sitting next to her against the characteristic green seats of parliament
Jo Luxton ran an early childhood centre before entering parliament (Photo: Getty Images; design Archi Banal)

The busy minister

“I just love the face-to-face contact of campaigning,” says Luxton, calling me in between a traverse to Timaru. Elected as a list MP in 2017, Luxton won Rangitata, historically a National seat, by 4,400 votes in 2020. She’s now ranked 20 on Labour’s list, almost certain to get in no matter how the election goes – and as Norman Kirk’s grand-niece, she has a longstanding connection to the party. Still, she wants the seat. “It’s such a privilege to be a voice for our community in Wellington,” she says. 

With offices in Ashburton and Timaru, which are an hour’s drive apart, Luxton acknowledges that “you can’t do this alone” – volunteers are helping her phone call and doorknock across the electorate. Does she like her chances of being re-elected as an electorate MP? “I’m going to work really hard to get out there, and have people get to know me and promote the party vote – I work hard, what you see is what you get,” is her slightly sideways response. 

She thinks that some of the most prominent challenges facing the community are worker shortages impacting farm productivity and a lack of affordable housing: lots of people coming into the electorate offices in Timaru are desperate for a place to live.

Luxton often, seemingly inadvertently, reverts to non-specific government-ese, the product of six years in parliament. People without a safe place to live is a problem in Rangitata: one way she’s been able to look out for people struggling to find a place to live is by “consulting with stakeholders”. What’s the best response to farmers who don’t want to stick to the Emissions Trading Scheme? It’s about “continuing to have the conversations” and having “achievable goals for better outcomes in our communities”.

a blue sky and sunny road and a brick wall with some gardens saying "ashburton domain"
The Ashburton Domain: would it be improved with a trampoline park? (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

She’s better when she gets into details. After the 2021 Ashburton floods, which severely impacted travel through the region and left hectares of farmland covered in silt, she says she spoke to ministers to ensure a sum of extra funding was directed towards Environment Canterbury for mitigating flood damage. “Once upon a time these were one-in-100-year events, but they’re going to continue happening, so we need to continue to invest,” Luxton says.

Luxton, who used to run an early childhood centre, is now an associate minister for agriculture and education. Does she think that there’s an appetite to keep reducing emissions via the ETS for farmers in her area? “Our farmers in Canterbury are, in my view, streaks ahead in terms of farming sustainably, but we can’t rest on our laurels,” Luxton says. “Our overseas customers demand sustainability [it was a key element of the EU free trade agreement], so we have to be leaders.”

I ask Luxton what her favourite fun fact about Rangitata is. She flounders for a minute. “Now you’ve really got me thinking,” she says, offering, insipidly, the idea that lots of food manufacture and the Double Brown brewery is in the area. An hour after we hang up, she texts me with her proper answer. “I’ve got it! Robyn Malcolm, one of my favourite actresses, grew up and went to high school in Ashburton.”

a youngish man on a green outdoors background wearing a black vest and blue shirt and smiling
James Meager describes himself as a ‘local boy’ (Photo: Supplied)

More than a year of campaigning

James Meager was the first candidate who was officially selected to run for National in the 2023 election. That was last September, a year ago. “I’ve talked to so many people, prosecuting our case for change,” he says. The “prosecuting” is telling: Meager trained as a lawyer, and was running a small consultancy firm in Ashburton when the local branch of the National Party chose him to run. Rangitata has one of the highest numbers of National Party members in any electorate in the country, he tells me – which is good for him “because our members are support and encouragement and a source of volunteers too”. 

Meager might be a first-time candidate but, if he gets elected, it won’t be his first time walking into parliament. He was a press secretary for Paula Bennett, executive assistant to Chris Bishop and advisor to Bill English and Simon Bridges before seeking nomination himself. Familiarity with the workings of parliament must be helpful for a prospective representative but he says the lesson from this time that has really stayed with him is “how to be a good boss – you owe everything to your staff as an MP”.

a gravelly tangled braided river bed, with a rail bridge and mountains in the background
Bridges over the Rakaia are some of the crucial transport links in this region (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

He speaks appreciatively about how much help he’s received from his campaign managers and volunteers. “I’m so grateful for the volunteers and people who do signs and jump on the phones. A lot of people get help from their immediate family but I’m single, so I’m doing this on my own.”

Meager, whose National Party profile talks of his love of cricket and spending time with his nephews, describes his working class background. His parents split when he was young: his mum now works in a supermarket and his dad first at a freezing works and now a packhouse. “It was the drive of my mum [that] made sure we turned up to education every day,” he says. “If you’re working and doing your 10-hour shift a day, you expect good quality public services and to be left alone on the weekend – that’s why I’m thrilled about the tax relief National is offering to the squeezed middle.”

When I ask Meager what the big issues in the Rangitata electorate are, he’s immediately eloquent. While the broader narrative the National Party is pushing is to do with crime and cost of living, Meager says the priorities for his electorate are transport, supporting primary industries and ensuring that centralised healthcare through Te Whatu Ora doesn’t leave this area of Canterbury behind. “We really need to invest in infrastructure: I can think of five or six key bridges off the top of my head, and if they go out, we cut the island in half.”

a road lll broken up and covered in water, upended vegetation. something bad has happened here!
The aftermath of the devastating 2021 Ashburton floods (Photo: RNZ/Katie Todd)

Extreme weather events can hit primary industries particularly hard, and Meager thinks that action on climate change needs to happen, but at the right time, which is not right now. “The Emissions Trading Scheme is a good framework to drive emissions down … but we’re against the government timeline. Until there’s technology that allows farmers to reduce emissions without destocking, because that will be economically and environmentally devastating.” The environmental damage, he explains, is because New Zealand farmers are more efficient than those overseas, so having less beef and dairy production here will just push those emissions abroad. “We don’t want to be looked at as a failed experiment.” Many environmentalists push back against the idea that the efficiency of New Zealand’s animal products is a reason not to reduce herds. However, Meager says that until technology solutions exist, he’d like to see more support for immediate relief following disasters like the Ashburton floods, to be distributed through local networks like Federated Farmers and Rural Women. 

With whakapapa to Ngāi Tahu, Meager is comfortable with his party’s position on co-governance. When I ask about this, he pauses, speaking slowly and carefully. “It’s difficult to say what being a Māori voice in the National caucus should mean,” he says. “Just because I don’t believe in something my uncles and aunties might believe in, in terms of Māori sovereignty or the place of co-governance, doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong. I want the same thing for my cousins and the whenua as everyone else – good health, good education, good environment. Those are Māori values, and they’re my values.”

He acknowledges that co-governance “means different things to different people”; he doesn’t support public asset governance like that proposed in the Three Waters legislation or separate Māori Health Authority or seats on ECan. However, “We do support the removal of disparity between groups, the true causes of inequality: exposure to the justice system, education disparity, welfare dependency.” He also appreciates that National is committed to the Treaty settlement process. 

I’m talking to Meager after another busy day on the campaign trail for him, visiting the Opuha dam company, door-knocking and attending the Timaru Meet the Candidates debate. At 69 on the list, meaning he needs to win the seat on current polling, Meager assures me he’s not spending much time thinking about how the election might play out. “My diary’s empty after October 14 – you don’t think about the final until the semi-final.”

Keep going!