(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsJune 15, 2023

Fieldays and the battle for the rural vote 

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Political leaders were out and about on day one of the annual Fieldays at Mystery Creek. Stewart Sowman-Lund was there too.

Yesterday marked exactly four months until election day, an occasion that coincided with the start of the annual Fieldays trade show in Waikato. It’s the largest event of its kind in the southern hemisphere, a sprawling mass of tents, tractors, food stands and promotional stalls. Politically, it also offers a glimpse into the mindset of rural New Zealand. A brief glimpse, but a crucial one – because rural New Zealand, so often called the “backbone” of the economy, votes.

It’s understandable, then, that MPs from across the political spectrum yesterday descended on Mystery Creek. I heard the same joke several times: “All of Wellington is here.” At times, it felt like it. The townies, myself included, typically opted for comfortable but waterproof footwear. There were a lot of boots that would look more appropriate for an office than a farm. Gumboots were surprisingly rare, though forestry minister Peeni Henare was proudly showing off his muddied Red Bands. At times, it was hard to avoid a politician. James Shaw, almost incognito in glasses and an MPI jacket, was chatting to a local while Winston Peters, in a resplendent turtleneck, wandered over to observe a tractor. He blanked Christopher Luxon, but engaged in some friendly banter with Todd McClay.

The leaders of our two biggest political parties were both out and about for much of the day. Prime minister Chris Hipkins started early by formally opening Fieldays, before attending a breakfast hosted by business advisory firm KPMG. In a speech afterwards, he ruled out introducing a so-called “fertiliser tax”. He would later reject the opposition’s characterisation of this as a “u-turn”, saying it had never formally been on the table, only floated during discussions with sector leaders. Instead, he was focused on ensuring the future of the government’s proposed proposed He Waka Eke Noa scheme that would allow for primary sector-led emissions pricing. Discussions on that will continue today, Hipkins said, and he’s optimistic. “I think we can get a way forward, I don’t think we’re that far apart,” he said. “While there will be some disagreements along the way, it is important that we continue to move forward.”

Chris Hipkins opens the ‘Sustainability Hub’ at Fieldays (Image: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

While there didn’t appear to be any protesters at yesterday’s events, not all attendees were thrilled with the arrival of a bunch of Wellington politicians. One man wished Luxon all the best for his election campaign, noting his son was going to move to Australia because “Jacinda pushed him away”. Luxon replied: “We’re going to build back better so we can bring him back.” Another man was seen wearing a shirt with a racist phrase that criticised the government for, in simple terms, destroying the country. He wanted Luxon to “be more outspoken” in his criticism of the government, and it was for that reason he’d be voting Act this year as a result. “They [the government] have done so much wrong.” The words “puberty blockers” were heard soon after. 

Meanwhile, Hipkins was all smiles as he wandered around stalls. He was particularly interested in a programme aimed at encouraging more young people into the agriculture sector. The presence of the media pack surrounding the PM certainly drew attention, with people seen double taking as the prime minister walked past. “There’s old Hipkiss,” said one man, perhaps suggesting the PM needs to work on his surname recognition. 

Regardless, when each was asked by The Spinoff how they found the reception at Fieldays, both Luxon and Hipkins said they had received a warm response. The prime minister described it as “mostly positive”, adding that he had heard some “constructive criticism” during his walkabout.

Both leaders reckoned their parties were best equipped to support the “backbone” of New Zealand’s economy. Luxon told The Spinoff his party had worked hard over many decades to be the party of farmers. “What we are saying here is we have a dilemma to manage: our farmers are the most emissions-efficient in the world, our farmers are also the backbone of the New Zealand economy, and the answer is not to go cull herds and destroy farming because in doing that we make global greenhouse gas emissions no better and we certainly make New Zealand infinitely poorer,” he said.

Christopher Luxon at Fieldays (Image: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Asked the same question about its support for farmers, prime minister Chris Hipkins opted for a more diplomatic approach. Labour is a party for all New Zealanders, he said – twice. “We recognise that when the farming sector is thriving, that’s good for all New Zealand. But we also recognise that the farming community has a really important role as kaitiaki of our natural resources, guardians of our natural resources, to make sure we are preserving the environment for future generations as well.”

Hipkins couldn’t resist a dig at Luxon, either, saying he hadn’t met anyone at Fieldays who was whiny, wet, inward-looking or negative. “Admittedly, I haven’t run into Christopher Luxon yet.” (He did, however, briefly catch-up with Winston Peters. Hipkins said they mainly talked about the weather).

The comments by Hipkins and Luxon didn’t go down particularly well with one MP. While Act’s leader David Seymour wasn’t in attendance yesterday (he’s announcing his party’s agricultural policy later today), a bevy of his party’s MPs are based at Fieldays all week. Mark Cameron, the only farmer actually in parliament, said it was clearly Act that best represented farmers. “As pretty much the sole voice of rural New Zealand for the past three years… Act has been pretty much the sole voice of commonsense when it comes to rural lawmaking,” he told The Spinoff. “That’s why I chose to stand for Act.”

The Act bus at Fieldays (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

The party, which recently announced former Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard would be standing in this year’s election, was working hard to secure deeper support from rural New Zealand. A bus bearing the faces of Seymour and deputy Brooke van Velden will be parked up at Fieldays all week, with MPs hanging around freely chatting to anyone that wants a chinwag.

With just under four months to go until decision day, and a repeat of 2020’s red wave unlikely, the question of which party – National, Labour, or otherwise – best represents rural New Zealanders will become even more important. 

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