Pretty Ugly, Pretty Quickly: That the demographic and cultural divide between rural and urban New Zealand remains a source of deep unease to farmers cannot be doubted. Equally indisputable, historically-speaking, has been the militant, even violent, character of rural New Zealand’s response. In New Zealand history, when the country comes to town, things tend to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Morrinsville, New Zealand, 18 September 2017.
YESTERDAY IN MORRINSVILLE farmers rallied against Labour’s proposed “Water Tax”. Why Morrinsville? Because that was the little country town in which Jacinda Ardern grew up. Just think about that for a moment. Think about what it says about the mindset of a distressingly large percentage of New Zealand’s farming community.
The president of the Waikato branch of Federated Farmers, Andrew McGiven, told the NZ Farmer newspaper that farmers were tired of being scapegoated by politicians. Another protest organiser, local farmer Lloyd Downing, complained to the same publication in similar fashion:
“The lack of fairness and consistency in some of the proposed policies, and the laying of blame solely at the feet of rural New Zealand for all of our environmental challenges is what is frustrating farmers – particularly when it is well known that the most polluted waterways are in urban catchments. The water quality issues are a challenge for all New Zealanders. Farmers recognise that, and are spending tens of thousands of dollars each on reducing their environmental impact.”
It was in response to these “continued attacks” on “rural New Zealand” that farmers rallied in their hundreds under Morrinsville’s giant cow statue.
New Zealanders like to think of themselves as people with strong ties to the land. It’s a fallacy which perhaps explains the enduring popularity of the television programme, Country Calendar. Except that, for most of its history, New Zealand has been an urban nation. Certainly, by the early years of the twentieth century most Kiwis resided and worked in towns and cities. In terms of their jobs, lifestyle and political outlook, these “townies” were a very different breed.
That this demographic and cultural divide between rural and urban New Zealand was a source of deep unease to farmers cannot be doubted. Equally indisputable, historically-speaking, has been the militant, even violent, character of rural New Zealand’s response. In New Zealand history, when the country comes to town, things tend to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly.
In 1913, for example, hundreds of armed farmers on horseback (known forever after as “Massey’s Cossacks” after the farmer-friendly Reform Party prime minister, William Massey) were brought into New Zealand’s major cities to crush what would come to be known as “The Great Strike”. According to New Zealand historian, James Belich, exchanges of gunfire between Massey’s Cossacks and the “Red Fed” strikers were common. Many of the trade unionists involved in the Great Strike later became MPs and Ministers in the First Labour Government.
One of those unionists was Peter Fraser. In 1945, as Prime Minister and Labour Party Leader, Fraser presided over the abolition of the infamous “Country Quota”. This was the section of New Zealand’s Electoral Act which, ever since 1881, had added a 25 percent weighting to votes cast in rural electorates.
The reaction of the farming community to Fraser’s long-overdue rectification of what can only be described as a democratic outrage is instructive. In his book, The Quest For Security In New Zealand 1840-1966, W B Sutch describes how Labour’s plans to abolish the Country Quota were met with “country-wide protests from farmers’ organisations, an appeal to the Governor-General asking him to intervene, and threats of direct action.” Quite what the cockies meant by “direct action” remains unclear, but the Dominion Executive of the Farmers’ Union (forerunner of Federated Farmers) was prepared to raise the then quite considerable sum of £250,000 to fund it!
The sort of thing the cockies had in mind only became clear in 1951, when the first farmers’ government since 1935 was willing to shut down New Zealand’s democracy for the 151 days it took Sid Holland’s National Party to replicate its Reform Party predecessor’s success in ruthlessly suppressing militant trade-unionism in the nation’s ports, coal mines, railways and freezing works.
Thirty years later, the reactionary cultural instincts of rural New Zealand were, once again, pitched into a prolonged and violent confrontation with the progressive values of metropolitan New Zealanders. The 1981 Springbok Tour not only bore testimony to the tenacity of rural conservatism, but also to its steady migration into the upper-middle-class suburbs of the largest cities.
When Mike Hosking challenged National’s current leader to name something he would march for, Dipton’s favourite son was at a loss. This was curious, since the photographs of a placard-carrying Bill English, seated jauntily on ‘Myrtle the Tractor’, at the 2003 Federated Farmers’ protest against the so-called “Fart Tax”, in Parliament Grounds, were still in the archives – and easily retrieved.
When Andrew McGiven and Lloyd Downing encouraged their rural brethren to gather under Morrinsville’s giant cow yesterday, they were simply adding another chapter to an already lengthy story of rural antagonism towards the needs and aspirations of New Zealand’s urban majority. The latter looked on, appalled, at the selfishness and ignorance which unfailingly follow the country into town.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 September 2017.