Saturday, December 9, 2023

Election result sees blue surge through green country

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The surge of National support in rural areas represents something of a resumption of ‘normal programming’ for NZ’s political landscape, writes Richard Rennie.
The recently completed Waikare Gorge Bailey bridge will open to traffic on Sunday.
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The surge of blue votes that washed through the country’s green provincial landscape last Saturday may represent something of a reset, a return to normal transmission in New Zealand’s electoral order. 

Back in 2020 that same landscape was rinsed red as rural voters kicked out at their usual party of choice. It was jittery after multiple leadership changes, and barely kept a united front throughout that campaign.

This time around the rural sector has endured more punishing and seemingly endless rounds of water quality reform, greenhouse gas regulations and, for good measure, some biodiversity policy settings. 

Regulatory fatigue has become well entrenched.

If you happen to farm in Waikato, you also shared the misery of a second extended and difficult lockdown with Aucklanders to the north. 

To add to rural malaise, the sector experienced Cyclone Gabrielle’s wrath and a further fraying of its infrastructure, which it bore with admirable stoicism. Meanwhile, urban centres’ broken sewers and dodgy water mains got plenty of attention, and almost overnight repair. 

Roading networks  have worn paper thin, with some local roads unlikely to ever be re-opened, and medical services in some districts are completely absent. 

Living in many parts of rural NZ feels more isolated, difficult and even dangerous now than it ever did in the second half of the previous century.

But, picking through the issues, it appears it is regulatory settings and reform that have preyed most on rural voters’ minds over the past three years. 

Rural leaders have been calling for more constructive, thoughtful approaches to regulations around water, greenhouse gases and biodiversity. Ones that acknowledge and include farmers, many who have already embarked on their journeys in those areas.

As difficult as the broken bridges and damaged roads have made life in parts of rural NZ, it says much about the sector’s “get on with it” approach that it is these regulations rather than those roads that reversed the colour of so many electorates on election day.

Interestingly, sector leaders are not calling for wholesale ejection of any and all regulations by the new government.

There is a maturity and acceptance that water, greenhouse gases and biodiversity all need attention and improvement. 

The willingness to do so is already witnessed in the growing success of district catchment groups, which farmers themselves are leading, and dearly want to see continued by whoever takes over.

And there should be pressure from the rural sector to have many of the rules and regulations already in place revisited and revamped.

The sector risks falling well behind its global counterparts in areas like gene editing, now accepted practice in Australia, the United States and South America and being considered by the usually GE-shy European Union. 

Meantime methane inhibitors, a key tool needed to reduce gas emissions, remain elusive. They are trapped at the border by slow, clunky regulatory processes that again have us falling behind our trade competitors.

The new agricultural minister would be wise to push for reform and acceleration of these rules and regulations.

Doing so would unlock the tools farmers so badly need to meet many of the demands made by the latest regulations – regulations that also contributed to the last government’s downfall among rural voters.

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