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01 June 2001

A classless society? Don't you believe it


"New Zealand is a classless society," is one of those Great Kiwi Clichés which you don't hear so often these days.

Relative to the United Kingdom, it was once probably fair enough. But as a statement of fact, it is - and always was - some way from the truth.

Even today, social class is still alive and well in New Zealand and particularly in rural areas.

One of the most consistent farmer complaints to editors of rural magazines is that they give too much coverage to the in-crowd.

The people complained of may be industry political leaders or prominent stud breeders, but they are always featured in their capacity as newsmakers. Yet their names and faces trigger regular outbreaks of the tall poppy paradox.

Sufferers from this condition resent the tall poppies for getting so much media fertiliser. But the flip side of the condition is an aversion to doing anything which might jeopardise the critic's status as an aggrieved outsider.

Now, there are more boards and committees in farming that you could shake a length of alkathene at. And volunteers are always eagerly embraced.

But when the nominations are closed, and the votes are taken, who gets elected? No prizes here: someone from the in-crowd, put there by the out-crowd.

For a culture which has a lingering belief that Jack is as good as his master it's all very peculiar.

So where does the in-crowd come from?

Well, it's dangerous to generalise, but on most farming organisations it's hard to miss the preponderance of faces from the east coasts of both islands.

The open country from Hawkes Bay to Otago was settled early in the colonial era by large land owners, many of whom were scions of landed English families. The rest of the country was settled later, the farms were smaller and the individuals often came from quite humble backgrounds.

This is now history. The big estates of the squatocracy have long ago been subdivided. And many of the descendants of subsistence mixed farmers are now wealthy dairy farmers. But the attitudes live on.

For people from the city, accustomed to the socially level world of modern business, the social divisions which still exist on the east coast often come as a great surprise.

Moleskin trousers and blue-check blouses with upturned collars, are obvious aberrations. But it's more than that.

In the mid-1980s, the Anglican vicar of Masterton, fresh from a urban parish, observed in the Wairarapa Times-Age that he had never met a community more divided. Town against country, dairy farmer against sheep farmer, land-owner versus small town businessman, Maori against Pakeha.

He didn't win any friends with his comments. But there was more than a grain of truth in what he said.

Since then, the prejudices many sheep farmers had about dairy farmers and dairy farming have faded. It's hard to look down on someone who earns more than you, and upon whom you might be reliant for grazing income.

More resilient has been the prejudice held by many farmers, from North Cape to Bluff, against those who work in farming who don't own land.

It probably owes it origins to the days when one-man one-farm was not only an ideal, it was a reality. When anyone who worked hard could get a farm of their own.

Those days are long gone, and as farms become large sophisticated businesses, the demand for well-trained farm managers continues to grow. Even so, you still occasionally hear the dismissive comment when farmers are talking together that so and so "is only a manager".

Attitudes will no doubt continue to change as economic reality and the growing shortage of skilled farm labour sinks in.

But among farmers, the responsibility for change rests as much with the out-crowd as it does with the in-crowd. After all, you can't have an in-crowd unless you have folk who get their kicks from treating them that way.

This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald, June 2001

- Trevor Walton

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