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Labour’s rural tsunami turns blue red

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Shifts in population profiles, a desire for stability and less ties to tradition, all played a role in the red wave of Labour votes that washed across the country’s rural electorates this month.
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Heather Gee-Taylor | October 27, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

The election has left few traditionally National electorates still in the blue, with long-held seats like East Coast and Wairarapa claimed by Labour in the North Island. 

In the South Island, the National stronghold of Rangitata fell to Labour’s Jo Luxton, while National’s share of the party vote haemorrhaged by 40% from 20,100 to 12,240 in that electorate. 

Next door in Selwyn, the National party share had also slumped from 59% of the vote to 34%.

But Southland farmer Dean Rabbidge doubts the red wave has come from farmers, and is more reflective of the mood in small towns within the electorates.

“I would not put it down to farmers voting Labour, they only account for 6% of the total votes here. There are lots of small towns, and Invercargill, down here that would have voted Labour,” he said.

The Invercargill electorate results reflected many provincial seats, with the party vote almost swapping places from 48% National and 35% Labour in 2017 to 47% Labour and 30% National this year.

He says given the level of angst in many rural communities over water quality regulations, he was surprised how strongly the party vote had shifted to Labour.

“And I think with people talking about voting strategically for Labour to keep the Greens out, that has had a domino effect, but there has probably been just as many in towns who have voted to get the Greens in,” he said.

The rules around wintering are felt very strongly in the southern regions, and promised to have a very limiting effect upon what farmers could feed stock.

And he was not convinced that just because the regulations were announced there was not more to come.

“I would be more worried now that Labour have this majority. With so many rural areas going red, they will only believe they have an even stronger mandate to push the regulations forward as they are,” he said.

He says the “insulting” freshwater submission periods and lack of communication had put farmers offside, and there was a dire need to improve communications with them.

In Otago, primary sector council member and farmer Nigel Woodhead’s electorate of Taieri includes South Dunedin, long a Labour stronghold. But a boundary change had resulted in more rural districts being included for 2020. 

Despite that there was still a swing to Labour, now 59% of party vote compared to 48% in 2017.

“There were probably a couple of things happening here,” he said.

“One was a vote to safeguard against the Greens, that other was people seeking some stability by keeping the government we have got.

“I think a lot of people see little difference between what they (National and Labour) are both trying to achieve, and National has not shown they have been that stable.”

He also doubted the younger generation of farmers were as traditionally inclined to vote National as their parents may have been.

Into the new electorate cycle, he believed water regulations would remain a big issue “south of the Waitaki” when it came to wintering rules.

“And many of the rules we are facing now are only upon us in the way they are because National did so little for so long,” he said.

He says north of Waitaki most NZ farmers knew the water regulations were tough, but workable, and also acknowledged they were probably longer coming than they should have been.

“And, I think more farmers feel a red tick is not the death knell for farming, but they could not live with the Greens making the rules,” he said.

In the Nelson region, 2019 Young Horticultural Grower of the Year Jono Sutton was surprised that long standing MP Nick Smith lost his post.

“He has always supported the districts and horticulture. This included the Waimea dam project and the poly tech,” he said.

He says Labour’s MP Rachel Boyack had been scarce beyond Nelson city over the election lead up.

He cited the seasonal labour supply as the single largest issue facing the sector that Labour must move quickly on.

Looming harvest dates and a shortage of thousands of staff meant growers faced the reality of crops rotting on trees and vines for the first time this season.

“Samoa is covid-free and at the moment workers are not allowed back here. That is just crazy,” he said.

In the Wairarapa region Baker Ag farm advisor and Zanda McDonald Award shortlister Sam Vivian-Greer says the size of the region’s population that comprised swing voters has grown with growth from Wellington.

“Ten years ago, Masterton was deemed a declining population resulting in some schools being closed. Currently most schools are now over-subscribed,” he said.

He says the successful Labour MP Kieran McAnulty had been active in the community and was high up Labour’s list.

Vivian-Greer did not expect to see any ugly surprises for farmers from Labour, but says the sector needed progress and clarity around environmental policies.

Heading into the next three years, the big issues would be around dealing with growth, particularly around schools, roads and health care.

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