In part two of a two-part series on farm politics in New Zealand, Professor Hugh Campbell explores what has changed and why things cannot go back to the way they were.

The wave of farmer protests in New Zealand may seem to be premised on a series of slightly incoherent policy claims, but they are grounded in a rock-solid sense of cultural grievance and nostalgia. What is evident in these protests are the last sighs from what used to be the most powerful and unified cultural and political force in New Zealand history.

Read part one of the series: Groundswell protests and the politics of nostalgia

Farmer power in the mid-20th Century was premised upon huge levels of economic power, in a formal political system that rewarded rural voters and sent a procession of farmer politicians to Wellington, and also in the indirect influence of a range of farming-related institutions, businesses and organisations that gave pastoral farming men a huge level of informal access to the corridors of power.

The remarkable level of power enacted by this tight little world is evidenced by the fact it was attained and maintained seemingly without effort. For many of the older farmers driving tractors in contemporary protests, this is the echo they hear: a world that existed in the middle decades of the 20th Century when their kind of New Zealander effortlessly managed the political life of the nation. The interests and needs of farmers would always be met, and any change would be driven from actors inside, not outside, their world.

The disintegration of the once all-powerful pastoral farming world in New Zealand began in the 1970s. Britain entered the European Common Market in 1973, and pastoral farming exports have steadily declined as a contributor to New Zealand’s economic welfare ever since. Pastoral farming is still a very big contributor to our economic welfare, but it is not the whole ballgame anymore.

Then the deregulatory fervour of Rogernomics in the 1980s dismantled or privatised the entire range of quasi-government organisations and producer boards that had provided so much indirect power and access to Wellington for pastoral farmers.

In their place a range of private corporations and businesses – from exporters to universities – became increasingly reoriented to take their lead from markets, clients and consumers rather than farmer stakeholders and suppliers.

A third calamity that began to really bring this decline into sharp focus came with the shift away from FPP to MMP. From 1996 onwards, the pathway to power for the National Party ceased to be via a series of marginal rural electorates, and swung towards a string of vote-rich suburbs in Auckland.

In effect, between 1973 and 1996, the once all-powerful farming world had experienced a significant decline in both its formal and its informal mechanisms for influencing and controlling whatever happened to farming in New Zealand. It would take a couple of decades, however, before the extent of that loss would start to become fully apparent.

This all took place at the same time that the wider world was dramatically changing, with changing market sentiments towards greener products, escalating environmental and animal welfare concerns, the climate crisis, and an increasing bifurcation of pastoral export chains between those who produce volumes and those who produce values.

All of these contributed to a diverging of political interests among pastoral farming groups. This is not to say that farming has entirely lost its political power. Far from it. But it is reforming and regrouping in a number of diverse ways that are less familiar to its older and more nostalgic constituents. The still influential remnant of the old corridor-alliances and world of lobbying and negotiating behind the scenes in Wellington lives on.

Federated Farmers has been showing some impressive dance moves while trying to keep a foot in multiple camps: engaging in long overdue negotiations setting expectations for freshwater, or climate impacts of farming, while nevertheless stalling some important environmental initiatives for years.

They are also working alongside a set of powerful primary produce exporters that are seeing the ‘direction of travel’ in the world market and moving to shore up the kinds of risks posed by poor environmental or animal welfare performance by a minority of their farmer suppliers.

That strategy is increasingly seeing an inexorable divergence between different elements of the pastoral farming world, particularly between dairying and almost every other land use sector in New Zealand.

There simply isn’t one rural New Zealand any more. There isn’t even one pastoral farming sector, or even a unity of purpose across farming generations. That unified, politically all-powerful pastoral farming world is gone.

It is no surprise that within the nostalgic remnant, a more extremist style of politics is taking hold. In the face of declining relevance and prestige, why not take your lead from US-derived social media telling you to hunker down on your farm, defend your property and gun rights, resist taxes, deny climate change, feel ‘racial pride’, and blame your woes on ‘urban liberals’ and ‘pretty communists’?

Luckily it’s only a small fringe who are going there, but the Groundswell protests are regrettably giving oxygen to exactly the wrong kind of farm politics if pastoral farming is going to thrive in the 21st Century.

The point of irreconcilable divergence is fast approaching. In the golden years of pastoral power, politicians, rural leaders, Federated Farmers, and small town mayors could stand on any platform and declare that “if you attack any of us, you attack all of us”.

The power of the farming lobby was its unity, and its determination to protect all of its members. That line may still work as rhetoric, but it doesn’t reflect the new realities of pastoral farming. Much of the farming industry has moved on from the nostalgic world that the Groundswell protesters are trying to preserve, but few farm leaders or politicians seem to want to admit this out loud.

The result is a world straddling two realities. The first reality claims that rural New Zealand is a single unified community, that everyone is approving of what everyone else is doing, and that the key problem is some kind of mythical urban vs rural divide that becomes particularly visible when a Labour Government is in power. In the other reality, export organisations, farm leaders, and an increasing variety of farmers themselves are moving on and directly engaging both the opportunities and challenges of a new, diverse and more demanding world for pastoral farming.

Sadly, in trying to make a show of unity and strength, the Groundswell protesters have only managed to expose the extent to which they are exiling themselves inside an older, less diverse, version of their farming world. They can still rely on some old tribal loyalties to pull in a crowd, but by simply demanding that everyone stop the clocks, they are making themselves increasingly irrelevant to the urgent political business of finding creative pathways forward for pastoral farming in New Zealand.

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