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Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
It was always going to be a hard act to follow.

After the phenomenal turnout for Groundswell New Zealand’s Howl of a Protest in July — estimated nationally at around 60,000 people — the probability of a repeat performance seemed less likely.

Yet the turnout for the second protest event on Sunday, dubbed Mother of All Protests, showed the depth of feeling that continues to exist in the rural community, as horn-honking tractors and placard-bearing utes rolled into towns and cities throughout the country. From humble beginnings, dreamed up by a couple of concerned cockies in the South, Groundswell has become a juggernaut and that has brought its own difficulties.

Unable to manage all aspects of it, Groundswell has been forced to distance itself from controversy — as claims have been made linking it from everybody from Brian Tamaki to other anti-vaxxers — with social media unhelpfully helping to fuel the fire of misinformation. Throw in some particularly distasteful posts from agribusinessman Ross Townshend, a former Groundswell organiser in the North Island who should have known better and who has been kicked to touch by Tatua, the dairy company on whose board he was a director, and it has not helped the Groundswell name.

Then there was the bizarre recent outburst from Economic and Regional Development Minister Stuart Nash in Parliament who said: "I'm not too sure what Groundswell stands for these days and that is what I have read on their website. It's a mixture of racism, anti-vax, etc."

Nash should have done some more research for the fundamentals of Groundswell remain the same as they have always been; concerns around unworkable regulations coming out of Government that impacts farmers, growers and rural communities, in particular Three Waters Reform, National Policy on Freshwater, Significant Natural Areas, National Policy on Indigenous Biodiversity, Seasonal Rural Workers, Climate Change Policy, Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill and the Clean Car Package.

The integrity of Groundswell co-founders Laurie Paterson and Bryce McKenzie — incidentally both vaccinated against Covid-19 — cannot be faulted. These are generational farmers who not only talk the talk, but also walk it, when it comes to farming sustainably, both economically and environmentally.

Mr McKenzie has been involved with the award-winning Pomahaka Water Care Group, a high-profile farmer-led catchment monitoring group. Mr Paterson’s contribution to the beef industry was recognised when he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. With successive generations of their families on the land — Mr Paterson’s grandchildren are sixth-generation to live at Waikaka Station — one of their main drivers was concern about the future of family farms.

These two mild-mannered men have been responsible for the biggest protests some towns have seen.

They have always emphasised the need for respect and safety during protests, right down to publishing a Code of Conduct. But they cannot control what other people and groups who might try to tag along with them say or do.

Groundswell has been snubbed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in its requests to meet her, while Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor has also been unavailable. O’Connor has previously said the Government was listening and heard the concerns raised at Howl of a Protest.

In July last year, Ardern launched a plan to boost primary sector export earnings by $44 billion over the next decade, while protecting the environment and growing jobs. At that time, she said New Zealand’s primary sector was "such a huge part of our economy and our brand".

Given the importance of the sector to the country — as both politicians have acknowledged — and the groundswell of feeling in the rural sector, the least they could do is find a slot in their diaries.

For it looks like Groundswell is not going to go away any time soon.


Good on the farmers, tradies, and the public who turned out to make sure the government knows we are sick of being pushed around.

It is difficult for the groundswell leadership to walk the tightrope between genuine protest over oppressive government legislation and the controversial fringe elements. These fringe elements were described in a former ODT editorial as a "ragtag collection of racists, rednecks, rifle lovers, anti-vaxers and climate change deniers". If groundswell is truly a mainstream grassroots movement, then the challenge for the leadership is to try to distance itself from this fringe in order to gain support in the towns, cities, and ultimately in central government.

A bigger challenge for them is the above said labels, less the anti-vaxxers, pretty much describes a large swath of rural NZ. They might deny this - but spend 5 minutes at any sale yard or country pub and the reality of their challenge is revealed.

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