The Press - Editorial: Are angry farmers just a convenient myth?

Who among us was not transfixed, if that is the appropriate word, by the pre-election spectacle of Waikato farmers assembling in the hometown of the Labour leader for a bout of Jacinda Ardern-bashing? The tractors, the politically charged anti-Ardern signs and even a bizarre model of a giant cow spoke of a rural sector that felt angry and threatened by the possibility of a Labour-led government and its promise of an irrigation tax. 

Of course it suited the National Party's interests to exploit uncertainty about agriculture under a centre-Left government. But there was a clear sense that a so-called urban-rural divide was exacerbated by cynical or opportunistic politicians from nearly every point along the spectrum.

The same tactics have continued since the election, even as a government struggles to be formed. A public relations consultant who worked on the National campaign has written an insider's account for an online publication on the progress of National's blue bus through the Ardern-fearing regions.

"You could drive for hours across the South Island without seeing any sign of the Labour Party, while every farmer in Canterbury had big, defiant National signs beaming down from their pivot irrigation towers," she writes. 

Every farmer? Really? 

The point was that "from the front seat of the bus, and on the street in every small town, it was obvious two parallel games were being played: one in the cities and one in the regions". Labour, she writes in a piece representing the National Party view, has a "disdain" for the regions, which is "where their food comes from". 

But this is a convenient myth bolstered by campaign-trail anecdotes. Analysis of election data by a Stuff reporter shows that the so-called urban-rural divide actually shrank in 2017. Some of the largest swings to Labour were in regional South Island seats such as Nelson, Waimakariri, Selwyn and Rangitata. The last three of those are the irrigation heartland. 

This does not mean that Labour won the party vote in those three rural electorates. But it does suggest that even on the dry plains and in small towns, the Jacinda Effect reverberated to some degree.

By contrast, the 12 electorates that increased their National party vote in 2017 were in highly urban Auckland, including on the west and in the south of the city. That leads to another, tougher set of questions: who was most afraid of a Labour-led government and why?

There has been reasonable speculation that an Auckland mortgage belt rescued National in 2017. This constituency was not concerned so much about water taxes and the cost of cabbages as the possible effect of a change of government on over-inflated property prices. The spectre of a capital gains tax was never fully exorcised. 

This is not to suggest that political rhetoric about "what the farmers what" versus the latte liberals of the city, the crowd that NZ First leader Winston Peters dubbed "Chardonnay-drinking, pinky finger-pointing know alls", should be dispensed with. Exaggerations are the meat and potatoes of campaigns. But rather than town against country, maybe the true divide in New Zealand right now is between Auckland and everywhere else.