PR man says farming at the crux of political divide

Political strategist Mark Blacham argues that agriculture may well be the focus of political polarisation under the new government.  He asks: Is there a chance that the new Parliament will end the urban-rural divide depicted in politics and media?

To assess this, BlacklandPR surveyed the careers of all MPs and the public comments made by MPs in Parliament for the first time.

The background of MPs is critical because our decisions and attitudes are influenced by our life experience. People with similar backgrounds tend to develop similar political views. MPs with rural experience will have more sympathy and appreciation for rural people and their issues.

Our assessment found that agriculture’s advocates in Parliament are now almost entirely in the National Party, and this is likely to fiercely polarise attitudes rather than curb hostilities.

Agricultural work makes up about 5% of the collective employment experience of MPs. That’s less that the general workforce, where about 6.5% are employed in agriculture. By contrast, 23% of MP work experience has been in business and commerce, and 19% in central government.

Agriculture is the only major economic sector where experience differs between political parties: nine National MPs have worked in agriculture, one Labour MP and one NZ First MP. No Green MPs have worked in the rural sector.

On the basis of backgrounds, it’s arguable that advocacy for rural interests are most likely to arise in Parliament from National, and barely at all from the centre-left parties.

This is almost exactly what we found when we assessed public comments about all the MPs new to Parliament.

We searched online, in media reports and their own social media posts, to capture comments from which we interpreted their general attitude to farming.

Among the 24 new MPs, only 40% said positive things about the agricultural sector; all were the National MPs. We couldn’t find positive comments about the rural sector from most of the new Labour and Green MPs.

In stark contrast to their silence on the value of farming, the centre left MPs all expressed grave concern about the quality of New Zealand’s water – from freshwater ways to bottled water. Most of them sheeted home blame to agriculture.

This all makes agriculture the polarising factor in Parliament. National MPs readily -- without prompting -- acknowledge the role of agriculture in our economy and society. MPs from other parties do not. This polarisation is likely to make agriculture a more partisan subject than it has been for many years.

There is an antidote to the polarisation: the public. Society at large does not hold the same antagonism toward agriculture as media and politicians. For example, a 2015 DairyNZ survey showed that two-thirds of the public had a very positive or somewhat positive impression of dairying.

Most politicians want to reflect the attitudes of their voters.

So it is voters who should be the target of the agriculture sector’s efforts to improve and substantiate their reputation.