Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Rural double ACT gears up for October

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Party fronting two candidates with real farming chops
ACT leader David Seymour is supported by Mark Cameron and Andrew Hoggard at the recent National Fieldays.
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Approaching the end of his first term in parliament, the ACT party’s rural spokesperson, Mark Cameron, says he’s spent more time explaining his ideas for the farming sector than actually debating them.

“So many politicians I work alongside don’t actually understand farmer quips, don’t understand what goes on inside the tractor cab,” he said.

Cameron swept into parliament at the last election after ACT, led by David Seymour, secured 7.5% and joined eight other new MPs in the party’s caucus.

For the past 30 years, Cameron has been dairy farming in Northland.

All going to plan, he could be joined in the ACT caucus by another farmer after October’s election – Andrew Hoggard.

Hoggard, who until recently was the president of Federated Farmers, owns a 500-cow dairy farm in the small rural Manawatū settlement of Kiwitea, near Feilding.

Together, the pair are pitching themselves as New Zealand’s “only genuine” farming politicians.

ACT was the most visible party the National Fieldays with a double site large enough for a marquee to hold public meetings and its campaign bus.

In a telling sign of its growing profile among rural voters, it drew a crowd of well over 100 for its agriculture policy launch, where Hoggard and Cameron spoke together dressed in ACT-branded oilskin jackets.

ACT is taking a more hardline stance on some issues, such as scrapping the Zero Carbon Act, that will likely appeal to the traditional rural voter with National pitching itself to be more centrist.

That seems to be appealing to those farmers who feel disenfranchised by the current government’s regulations. 

Speaking at the party’s site at Fieldays, Hoggard said the party had received a “really positive” response from potential voters at the event.

“I think we’ve had one grumpy person yesterday and that was about it. Everyone else says good on you, go for it,” Hoggard said. “There is often your standard farmer that just walks up to shake your hand, grunts and walks off again, which is the kind of conversations I like.” 

An ACT member since 2019, Hoggard announced in May that he would be standing for ACT in  October’s election.

When he announced his candidacy, political commentator Ben Thomas said securing a sitting president of Federated Farmers, which was prominent in rural conversations, was an “absolute coup” for ACT.

Based on current polling and given Seymour’s indication of a high list ranking, Hoggard could almost certainly be off to parliament, joining Cameron as the party’s two rural MPs.

It’s been more than a month since Hoggard began life in politics, which he said was about helping with rural representation in Wellington.

“If my mere presence can help attract more rural votes to ACT to make it a strong part of the next government, then great.”

Getting into politics is about “feeling the need to help” a sector that felt it had been under pressure for some time.

He would be taking his knowledge around policy gained over the years at Federated Farmers to help develop solutions. 

“To be honest I didn’t get into politics because I wanted to be a politician. If the country was heading in the right direction, everything was fine, I’d just piss off back to the farm.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Cameron, who said the pair want to be as “authentic” as possible with voters.

“We’re both humble cow cockies who want to be left alone and now we’ve identified a problem in the world and want to be part of finding a solution,” Cameron said.

After 30 years of farming, Cameron said he understands how broken “the system” is and how “beltway politicians don’t understand the rural sector”.

“I got into politics for the same reason he did. I could either be a passenger on the bus yelling at the sky or I could actually drive it to help change the direction.” 

Politics at Fieldays was dominated by a possible agreement on emissions pricing, something that was looking increasingly unlikely ahead of the 2025 deadline. 

ACT and Cameron took credit for getting the government to rule out a fertiliser tax – something Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor had been at looking as an alternative.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said a solution was “very close” before he met with sector leaders. Meanwhile, National leader Christopher Luxon said the government had “shot it to pieces”.

Cameron described it as an “absolute menagerie”. Hoggard said lowering emissions shouldn’t be about “a frickin’ stick” instead “a carrot”.

In its policy released at Fieldays, ACT said if farmers in NZ’s five main trading partners weren’t paying for emissions, neither would NZ farmers.

Overseas companies are already putting pressure on local companies.

Asked whether the party’s policy poses a trade risk for NZ, Cameron said it is similar to the argument that exporting livestock undermined NZ’s domestic production.

Hoggard agreed, saying pulling the “it’s a trade risk” lever is “dangerous”, particularly given they do it during trade negotiations.

It was like no one in Wellington knows how to run a negotiation, Hoggard said.

“We should send the whole bloody lot of them to a bazaar in Egypt and tell them you must buy something at this cheap price. Give them a frickin’ lesson.”

Hoggard may not be the only new former Federated Farmers MP in the next parliament, if elected.  Miles Anderson, who was on the organisation’s national board, is standing for National in the traditionally safe seat of Waitaki.

Former Otago Feds president Mark Patterson, an MP between 2017 and 2020, is also trying to get back in, for NZ First.

Asked whether they want the agriculture minister job in a potential coalition with National, Cameron was quick to shut down speculation, saying it is up to the leaders to decide.

“We want better policy and it’s not about ministerial positions,” he said.

BusinessDesk’s latest poll tracker shows that ACT is on about 12% support.

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