Saturday, December 2, 2023

Urban and rural meet in political frustration

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The way the two sections of society have united in the Netherlands should give politicians pause, says Nuffield scholar Kerry Worsnop.
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By Kerry Worsnop, Gisborne farmer and Nuffield scholar

FOR years now there has been rhetoric around the separation between rural communities and their urban counterparts, to the extent that this separation is often implicated in poor land-use policy, disparate infrastructure and health investment, and at times acrimonious environmental debate. 

The very different needs of rural and urban life no doubt lend themselves to this debate. The challenges of the rural household are not always the same as they are for those in urban areas, but sometimes they are, and more than this, our basic human needs remain entirely consistent no matter where we live.

We may be growing more united as time goes on. 

For anyone visiting the Netherlands, the rapidly shifting political landscape is hard to miss, emblazoned as it often is across the front page of the national newspaper. 

For those who missed the widespread coverage of tractors clogging city streets and highways jammed for miles with every form of rural farm implement, the rising resistance of Dutch farmers to rapid and extreme policy changes became the catalyst for a new political party, one entirely born of people who felt they could tolerate no more.

The surprise was not in the birth of a new political faction, nor even that it would have rural interests at its roots. No, the most incredible feature of this political eruption lies in its popular support among those with little connection to the rural regulations at the root of the party’s birth. 

The Farmer Citizen Movement shocked the Netherlands and the world when, earlier in the year, it won 16 of the 75 seats in the Dutch senate, the most overall of any party, a feat clearly not possible without widespread support from urban voters. 

Of the 17.5 million people in the Netherlands (not all of whom are old enough to vote) the farming cohort represents as few as 50,000, a minuscule proportion of the wealthy and highly developed country. 

Those commentating on this seismic shift attribute the change to farmer protests having resonated far beyond the fields, a sense of frustration in that leaders increasingly treat “the government’s needs as more important than the needs of the citizens”, in the words of Caroline van der Plas, the leader of the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement).

This sense of disconnection between national leadership and the general citizenry appears to be on the rise in many places beyond the Netherlands, although few are yet to co-ordinate a response as potent as the Dutch example. 

Our leaders would be well advised to take notice, given that the general mood of New Zealand voters appears not so dissimilar to that of the Netherlands. 

The irony is not so much that politics has strayed so far from its usual haunt of promising to fix all and sundry, kissing babies and promising a better and brighter future; the irony is that the more these things are promised, the less satisfied we become, for obvious reasons. 

The gaps are not closing, despite the rhetoric. Too many policies are not working, despite the swathes of debt and cash devoted to them, and this is deeply troubling. For people without mountains of cash or access to cheap credit, there is ever more reliance on the government to fix what we cannot, but naturally this comes with its own problems. 

Government is distant, massive and clumsy, it has little capacity to know its citizens intimately and instead increasingly relies on symbolism and burgeoning communications strategies to demonstrate effort and care, if not actual results.

Inevitably, people grow cynical. They have the benefit of intimately understanding the issues nearest to them, and they often hold the answers, but too few leaders appear inclined to land an ear and we persist instead with top-down models, shuffled deck chairs and ever more frantic attempts to “do something”. 

Meanwhile large parts of society continue to trudge on, bearing the weight of broken policy, poorly aligned services and inadequate power to address them. This naturally leaves citizens feeling misunderstood, unheard and ignored. This phenomenon is not rural, it is not urban: it is human.

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