By Chris Trotter*
Was it "the mother of all protests?" Of course not. By virtue of their sheer material bulk, convoys of tractors, utes and trucks are required to compensate for a serious deficiency in human numbers. Yes, a convoy of 100-200 vehicles looks very impressive as it passes under a motorway overbridge.
But a crowd composed of the 200-500 individuals travelling in those vehicles doesn’t look very impressive at all. Quite the reverse. Assuming that the advertised individual “Groundswell” protest hubs did indeed number 60, and that the number of farmers and their hangers-on at each one of them averaged 300, then across the country, we are talking about a protest of around 18,000 individuals.
Compare that to what is still the largest demonstration in New Zealand history: the 70,000 Labour Party supporters and trade unionists who rallied in the Auckland Domain on the eve of the 1938 General Election; and the Groundswell organiser’s claims are thrown into risible relief.
The Groundswell organisers have a similar problem when the co-ordinated protests against the Employment Contracts Bill are set alongside their own. According to the research of US labour jurist and academic, Dr Ellen Dannin, who was teaching at Massey University during 1990, the anti-ECB “Week of Action” (3-10 April, 1991) “included strikes, stopwork meetings, rallies, and marches involving 300,000 to 500,000 New Zealanders.”
So, did Sunday, 21 November 2021, witness the “Mother Of All Protests”? Nope. Not even close.
These glaring discrepancies in terms of mass political support, point to the problem the New Zealand “farming community” has faced for more than 100 years. Its economic importance is out of all proportion to its numbers. In terms of democratic politics, this places farmers in an invidious position. How do they protect themselves from the designs of non-farmers, whose numerical preponderance positions them as the ultimate arbiters of farming fortunes?
Historically, farmers relied upon New Zealand’s First-Past-The-Post electoral system (FPP) to blunt the numerical advantage of town and city dwellers. FPP, by concentrating working-class votes in urban electorates, allowed farmers and their economic allies to win electorates where, in terms of class and occupation, the voting population was much less homogeneous.
When the growth of New Zealand’s urban population threatened to undermine this critical advantage, the farmers political representatives created what came to be known as “The Country Quota” – whereby rural votes were artificially weighted so as to offset the numerical advantage of urban voters. (This outrageous piece of gerrymandering remained in force until 1945!)
With the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) in 1996, however, the farming community was stripped of all its electoral advantages. Nothing now stood between the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders who lived in the nation’s major cities, and the dwindling number of Kiwis who lived in rural and provincial New Zealand, except the enduring cultural mythology of “the heartland”, and the “cocky” as the “backbone of the nation”. Preserving these myths is crucial to the farming community – both economically and politically.
Achieving this critical objective entails the farming sector clearing some formidable cultural hurdles. How are farmers to preserve the goodwill of urban New Zealand when, for more than a century, they have looked upon the cities as the breeding grounds for all manner of moral and political evils? This alienating motif of Rural Virtue vs Urban Vice has been a recurring feature of New Zealand history. From “Massey’s Cossacks”, to Jenny Shipley’s “Benefit Cuts”, rural New Zealand has seen it as both its right and its duty to put the cities in their place.
John Mulgan, in his celebrated novel, Man Alone (1939) captures this desiccated rural culture and its hard-baked prejudices:
“It was not long before Johnson was at home in this country. He talked as they all talked. He got to know the dates of the race meetings and where to go for a beer in town at most times, and the story of the 1905 match when Wales beat the All Blacks by one try to nil, and why it was necessary to have a farmers’ government to protect the real interests of the country.”
And those “real interests of the country” are no figment of rural New Zealand’s imagination. This country’s agricultural exports still constitute the backbone of its economy – especially in these Covid-afflicted times. It is absolutely vital, therefore, that the nation’s farmers keep farming with all the productivity and efficiency for which they are internationally renowned.
Not that their key lobbying organisations need any instruction in this regard. Federated Farmers, in particular, has long understood the necessity of keeping urban New Zealand’s faith in the cockies of the heartland topped-up. It’s problem, however, is that the behaviour of its members all-too-often contradicts the carefully-crafted image of the farmer as steward of the land, sensitive innovator, and patriotic economic contributor. It is surely no accident that the pre-eminent contributor to New Zealand’s rural mythology, Country Calendar, has less and less to say about the industrial farming laying waste the rural environment, preferring, instead, to concentrate on those conscientized farmers at the margin: all of them doing their bit to save the planet.
Into this extremely delicate situation, the Groundswell organisers have blundered like an Aberdeen-Angus steer in an organic vege-shop. Unreasonably proud of their rural economic virtues, and dangerously forthright in their enumeration of the cities’ political vices, these Kiwi equivalents of America’s “good ole boys” have presented a portrait of rural New Zealand from which many urban Kiwis have recoiled in disgust. Well might the National Party and Federated Farmers rail against Labour Cabinet Minister Stuart Nash’s “racists and anti-vaxxers” comment. They knew exactly who he was talking about.
The irony of all this “She’s a pretty communist” antipathy towards the Labour Party and its Leader, is that, historically, it was the Labour Party that did the most to restore order to New Zealand’s depression-ravaged rural economy. For 50 years, Labour’s reforms made it possible for Kiwi farmers to worry about little more than droughts, floods and how to get more ewes/cows to the acre. Also forgotten is the fact that when Roger Douglas put all of these support structures to the torch, back in the 1980s, Federated Farmers was not there with a hose to douse the flames. Nor, when it came right down to the tin-tacks of the free market, was National.
The survival of New Zealand farming – and farmers – will turn on how fulsomely they embrace the virtues deemed essential to the survival of civilisation as we know it. Climate Change does not distinguish between urban and rural, cocky and townie. It will take both to bring New Zealand safely through the dangerous twenty-first century. In the process, it can only be to the benefit of both sides of the rural/urban divide if they become a whole lot more like each other.
Because, as the poet Denis Glover, who knew a thing or two about the country and the town, put it in his wistful poem, “Thistledown”:
Dream and doubt and the deed
Dissolve like a cloud
On the hills of time
Be a man never so proud
He is only thistledown planted on the wind.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.