Farmers rallied against Labour and the Greens in Jacinda Ardern’s hometown Morrinsville yesterday. Simon Wilson went along to see what they had to say for themselves.
The farmers stood around like cows outside the milking shed, pressed together, mostly all facing the same way, and the journalists moved among them like jackals, notebooks open, mics at the ready, our phones set to record. It rained, then it didn’t, then it did again, then it didn’t. Waikato now has Auckland’s weather.
There were maybe 500 people and on the whole it was a pretty good-humoured rally, except when Winston Peters showed up and tried to take over.
He had a whole gang with him, and the ‘Straight Talk Express’, which is the NZ First bus, or as a woman in front of me put it, “Winnie’s Van”.
Peters harangued the crowd in that stabby way of his, telling them the National Party had “secret deals with the Māori Party” and a “secret deal with iwi around the country”, and that straight after the election we were going to learn that National, like Labour, was going to introduce a water tax.
“Where’s your guts Winston!” came the shouts. “Tell us if you’re going to go left or if you’re going to go right! Where’s your guts!” There was a lot of booing.
Peters later told media he had “a letter in my briefcase over there” (though he didn’t ask anyone to go and get it). He picked a fight with a journalist because he decided she was “ignorant about dairying”. Turned out she grew up on a dairy farm and knew quite a lot about it.
Scott Smyth, a dairy farmer from Karapiro, asked Peters whether, if he was in government with Labour, he would stop the water tax. Peters wouldn’t say. Smyth kept at it and so did Peters, standing in a row of rosetted NZ First members under the giant cow, his face, as always, flicking from mirth to anger and back again. Smyth turned away disgusted. “It’s what I thought,” he said.
Several others tried simple straight questions, and Peters ducked and dived on every one of them. He didn’t seem to mind. He wasn’t there to win the crowd, he was there to use the event to dominate the news that evening. Which he almost did, largely because Bob from Te Kuiti ran over a NZ First candidate’s foot with the famous tractor, Myrtle.
Yes, Morrinsville has a giant shiny cow. It’s called cow art and Jeff Koons can just eat his heart out. There are 42 of these fibreglass cows around the town, each one of them individually painted to a theme, although only one of them is bigger than a normal cow. They’re fantastic, actually. Clever designs, some commercially focused and others highly fanciful, and they project lots of feelgood. Is there a better main street in a country town to walk along?
These farmers weren’t there because of the water tax. They don’t even irrigate. They don’t need to: the Waikato has always been good for dairy, unlike inland Canterbury, where vast irrigation schemes are transforming land entirely unsuitable for cows. They were there because of a more general malaise.
Patience (“though everyone calls me Annie”) said she wanted “to support all farmers”. In relation to what? “Oh my god, everything. It’s the whole economy. I don’t think Labour has a very good team. Jacinda is not experienced. We’ll really be in trouble if our exports get stuffed up.”
Did she think that might happen? “Oh yes. And it’s about what’s happening in the cities, too. All these beneficiaries, why don’t they give them food vouchers instead of money? Then the kids would get fed.”
Then she remembered the cause of the day. “Also there’s the water prices. And all the taxes. Food prices will go up. It’s going to backfire on all the people they’re trying to help.”
Patience had a placard that said “Don’t bite the hand that feeds YOU” on one side and “TINKERBELLS taxes? Yea, Na!!” on the other.
Howard Bartley, a retired dairy farmer from Pirongia, said he was there because “farmers are getting a hard deal” and the problem of rural pollution is “not half as bad as what they make it out to be. Farmers are doing a great job.”
He thought none of the political parties were listening, really. “They’re all very urbanised. I think we’re going to need a farmers’ party before too long.”
So was he interested in NZ First? “Oh no. No no no no.”
Charlie, a sheep and beef farmer from Cambridge, said he was there “to stick up for my sector”. He was wearing a shirt proclaiming him the winner of the Ballance Waikato Environmental Award. What did he get that for?
“Planting 17,000 trees. And fencing 3km of waterways.”
Was that all the waterways on his farm? “It’s two thirds. We’ll get the rest done over the next three years. There’s a plan.” Was there more to it than that? Was he changing what goes into the soil? “Oh yes, we’ve reduced the amount of fertiliser we use.” Charlie also runs a contracting business that “plants 100,000 native trees every year”.
Why was he there? “It’s everything Labour wants to do. All the taxes, the capital gains tax, fart taxes, the whole lot.”
Craig Sinclair was the man with the “SHE’S A PRETTY COMMUNIST” placard. On the other side it read, “BRING BACK BUCK AND WINSTON”.
“We’re getting hammered,” he said. “They’re making us feel like we’re doing everything wrong.” He had the nervous grin a person wears when they know they’ve done something wrong but they did it anyway. Craig was a dairy farmer from Tauwhare, east of Hamilton.
Lloyd Downing got up on the raised dais under the giant cow, to start the formal proceedings. Downing is the past-president of Waikato Federated Farmers; he and Andrew McGiven, the current president, had organised the rally. But it was not an official Federated Farmers event, despite their affiliations. The distinction went unnoticed.
“Even the ducks are wearing gumboots today,” Downing said, which got a warm laugh. I bet they tell each other that a lot.
“We need a carrot not a stick,” he said, to more appreciation. “By the time the taxman gets his cut, by the time the Māoris get their cut, by the time the lawyers get their cut, by the time the politicians get their cut, there’s not much left for us farmers.”
Downing said the problem they faced was “a New Zealand problem not just a farmers’ problem”.
Resentment at “the Māoris” simmered beneath the surface. Winston Peters poked long and hard at it when he spoke. Alan and Cath Hughes, farmers and members of NZ First, told me they were most worried about the Marine and Coastal Area Act, National’s 2011 response to Labour’s fated Foreshore and Seabed Act.
“Do you know how many claims there are under that act?” said Alan. “It’s 580. And the government has given iwi $200 million to push them through. Hobson’s Pledge is talking about this too.”
“Māori are going to take over the beaches,” said Cath. “We won’t be able to get oysters or anything.”
Did they really think people won’t be allowed to go to the beach?
“Yes,” said Alan. “Yes I do.” Cath nodded in agreement.
Michelle Wilson of the Dairy Women’s Network took the megaphone next and spoke passionately about the importance of community. She’s a dairy farmer in Waihi, and said when she married she imagined it would be “a life of milking a few cows”.
“But farmers are jacks of all trades. We’re directors of companies, employers, community leaders. We love the land, we love the animals and we love the communities we live in.” She listed some of the volunteer work they do: firefighting, hospices, school committees and more. She said, “And I’m tired of hearing all the emotive, uninformed drivel.”
She wanted to know, “Why aren’t more politicians talking about the positive contribution farmers make? I’m proud of the contribution dairy makes to the New Zealand economy. But I’m most proud of the contribution we make to our communities, ensuring that people live in safe and caring communities.” She was impressive.
Then Nigel McWilliam from the local chamber of commerce had a go. “My science teacher used to tell me that the solution to pollution is dilution,” he said, liltingly. “So after all this rain, I don’t think we’ve got a problem at all anymore.”
He got a laugh, but there can’t have been many people there who thought it was anything but nonsense. Flooding is not the answer to effluent. Still, he wasn’t a farmer.
Then the main speaker: Andrew McGiven, dressed in his green work overalls with the legs tucked into work socks. McGiven is a tough-looking customer with a face like slabs of stone. He accused Jacinda Ardern of telling “desperate lies” and then said Labour and the Greens wanted to “tax farmers out of the game”.
“They want to shut farmers down! But if they do that they might as well turn all the lights off and leave the last one to lock up.” Then he said, “New Zealand is too small to have a rural/urban divide”.
McGiven was the rabble rouser, but the crowd wasn’t a rabble and while they applauded they didn’t get terribly roused. They were concerned but not furious or shocked or terrified. They wanted to see the National Party retain power. But when you shook off the inflammatory McGivenisms, there didn’t seem to be much more going on than a rural community expressing its natural preference for National over Labour.
McGiven finished up with, “We’re going to march up the road to the pub or the RSA, one or the other, and have a drink.”
Annie, a dairy farmer from Morrinsville, said to me, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else today.”
Why? “I’m dedicated to farming. I want to support dairy all over the country.”
Her friend Martin, also a dairy farmer from Morrinsville, said, “Dairy NZ and Fonterra are doing a lot of work” on environmental programmes. “When politicians start talking about taxing us more, I get a little bit tetchy. We can do it better ourselves.”
“They’re definitely picking on us,” said Annie.
Her teenage granddaughter Jodie, who lives on a dairy farm in Whakamaru, said she had come to the rally because, “It’s wrong that the government should tax farmers, just so they can put money into making farming more sustainable. Farmers can do that themselves and they already are. And Dairy NZ is finding more things we can do all the time.”
David Lloyd, a methane campaigner, was there, getting in the photos with Winston Peters and NZ First, although he does not belong to the party. After the official speeches he jumped up and took the megaphone, but it went into siren mode. He tried again, same thing. He did his best to tell the crowd that methane has a “net zero” effect on the atmosphere, but they weren’t listening.
Bob drove his tractor Myrtle round and parked it in front of Lloyd, to try to shut him up. He jumped off and walked away, muttering, “It’s bloody bullshit. Bloody bullshit.”
Farmers might not all agree on what to do about belching cows, but it seems even the leading campaigners against Labour’s “fart tax” in 2003 know that methane is an issue.
Bob wore a signed Waikato rugby shirt and was channelling all the blokily irreverent Stephen Donald vibes he could muster. Which was quite a lot. Earlier, in response to a question by Newshub’s Paddy Gower, he had launched into an explanation of why farmers were so worried. “It starts with the grass,” he said, scuffing at the grass underfoot with his boot. Then he realised it was artificial and stopped.
National’s Waikato candidate Tim Van de Molen was there, hanging around the fringes. Why didn’t he speak? “We decided as a party that we wouldn’t,” he said. “It’s not a party political event.”
Was he annoyed that Winston Peters spoke? “That was a bit unfortunate.”
Van de Molen has a horticulture farm near Hamilton, and has previously been a dairy farmer and a rural banker. He said farmers are “feeling picked on” because the “auto default position” of many people is to blame farmers for pollution. “They don’t see a similar focus on the cities, for example the beaches in Auckland.” But then we talked a bit about the billions of dollars Auckland Council is gearing up to spend on Auckland’s water and sewage systems; he seemed up to speed with most of that.
I suggested the crowd didn’t seem particularly angry. The sun was shining at that moment. “They’re smiling,” he said. “You get that with the sunshine.”
He added, “What they’re worried about, they want to make sure everything is fair.” That seemed about right, actually.
Later, Don Coles, a sheep and beef farmer from north Waikato, called Van de Molen a “carpetbagger” who “only joined the party a few months ago”. Unlike Alan and Cath Hughes, Don didn’t see a problem with iwi because “they’ve got past their crap and they’ve got it right now”.
“Iwi and Federated Farmers have come to the same position,” he said. “But other people [he meant Labour and the Greens] should understand you don’t try to fix something until you understand what the problem is.”
Also, he said, “The Greens are only in it for the politics. It’s a way of getting votes.”
He really didn’t think the Greens believed in their policy positions? “They’ve never bothered to find out. They haven’t done the work. What happens if nitrates aren’t a problem?”
Don didn’t think nitrates were a problem.
Fergus, who’d farmed in Matamata for 20 years and was now “in the service industry”, was worried about suicide. The last time he’d been on a protest march was in the days of Roger Douglas. “It had to happen, don’t get me wrong. But not the way it did. And health and safety regulations, they have to happen now too. But people find it hard to adjust. I’m voting blue because I think Winston is living in the past.”
They were all voting blue. It wouldn’t occur to them to vote red or green, and it didn’t seem there was anything Labour or the Greens could say to persuade them to listen. They thought they were doing enough, and many undoubtedly were, and they didn’t want to pay any more money to anybody.
As for Winston Peters, they had thought about him, but they’d decided not to trust him. He reinforced that mightily at the rally.
McGiven never did get his march started. He wandered around for a while saying to knots of people, “Let’s go. Will you follow me?” and “Who wants a beer?” but nothing happened. The crowd dispersed – several of them to the pub and the RSA, but not in any organised way. You have to be angrier than this mob was to march in the street.
All around Morrinsville, the cows stood in waterlogged paddocks. It had bucketed down overnight and swathes of the countryside were underwater. “It’s not just last night,” said Fergus. “We’ve had the wettest winter for 20 years and a lot of people are finding it really tough. It’s hard. It’s really hard.”
He was a friendly, relaxed man, not obviously given to strong emotions. “I went along to hear Mike King a while back,” he said. “45 percent of people who take their own lives are middle-aged white men.”
That’s what climate change means in the Waikato.
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