Candidate’s rural roots run deep
Ian McKelvie knows rural New Zealand, from boardroom-level finance to muck on gumboots. He tells Lee Matthews why rural New Zealand needs a strong, clear voice in government politics.
They don’t make them a truer blue than Ian McKelvie. The Mayor of Manawatu has been selected by the National Party as its candidate for Rangitikei for this year’s general election, replacing Simon Power, who is retiring at the end of this term.
Mr McKelvie is as Rangitikei as it’s possible to get. His family began farming on the banks of the Rangitikei River in the 1840s. His great-great-grandfather came to New Zealand from Australia, and he lived at old Flock House.
One of his sons built the current Flock House.
Mr McKelvie was born in Palmerston North Hospital, and attended Wanganui Collegiate as a boarder. He completed a Diploma of Agriculture at Massey University, and worked for a Waikato dairy farmer to experience different farming.
Then he went home to farm the sand country on the banks of the Rangitikei, about five kilometres from the coast, working with his brother. The farm was a sheep, beef and cropping unit, with lately, dairy as well.
‘‘I’ve been lucky to have a brother to farm with. It meant I could do a lot of other things as well – the car business, insurance, finance and politics.’’
The rural roots run deep. At 58, Mr McKelvie knows every aspect of rural New Zealand, and that’s the experience he sees will be valuable for wider New Zealand, if he is elected Rangitikei’s next MP.
‘‘I think this is an opportunity to take rural views to Parliament. There are not many people in our
Manawatu Mayor Ian McKelvie has been selected as the National Party’s candidate for Rangitikei. Parliament now who have the grip on rural issues that I do.
‘‘There are two big issues facing rural New Zealand. One is lack of infrastructure and the other is depopulation, and the reasons for those are lack of income in the rural sector.’’
He sees that shortfall as the big problem. Farms have got bigger through mergers. The theory was that bigger farms meant better economies of scale, but it hasn’t always worked that way.
Past a certain point, merging farms depopulated communities, as people moved to find work, and depopulation meant not enough children coming through to keep the local school open, and small rural businesses died.
As Manawatu district mayor for nine years, he has seen rural communities innovate to hold residents. Tourism has fed part-time jobs in Manawatu and Rangitikei, but rural New Zealand needs better communications, such as broadband that actually works and cellphone cover that doesn’t rely on semaphore signals, he says.
‘‘All that business Kimbolton couldn’t do, because to get cellphone coverage up there, you had to stand on a picnic table and wave your phone in the air. We still suf- fer from it at our place.
‘‘That’s nonsense for anyone trying to run a business.’’
If communications are linked properly, people will go back to rural communities, he says.
So his election platform will be rebuilding rural New Zealand?
‘‘It’s the powerhouse of the economy. Rural New Zealand is about production. I don’t think any of our governments have [recently] done anything to deliberately damage rural New Zealand, but I don’t think we have a strong enough rural voice in Parliament now. I’m not talking about special treatment for farmers. I’m not talking about subsidies. I just hope to have some influence to improve things.’’
Looking back over his mayoralty, he is proud of his council’s achievements. One project he wants to see finished before he leaves is the boundary change between Manawatu District and Palmerston North city.
‘‘Palmerston North’s ability to develop as it should is being restricted by that boundary,’’ he says. He is a fan of amalgamating the two local authorities.
‘‘It . . . would do away with all the debates about who pays for what – Te Manawa, Manfeild – if we were just one region. But I do appreciate that the rural community thinks differently.’’
He was shoulder-tapped to stand for the mayoralty. The by-election happened when Mayor Audrey Severinsen had to give up office because of brain cancer. He had just spent four years as the national president of the Royal Agricultural Society.
‘‘Bringing an institution that hadn’t changed for 70 years into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century, well, it did give you a certain skill set.’’
He sees his step to government politics as an opportunity to use all the skills he has developed as mayor. The electorate work is similar – same people, same problems, same events . The differences are in the politics. Government politics are strictly party political.
‘‘That’ll be the change for me. There’s just no room for party politics in good local government – the message there is about us making the best decisions for our community.’’
Other interests he has kept going during his mayoralty have included rugby, polo and being chairman of Special Olympics New Zealand.
‘‘That appealed to me. I’m into sport, and it’s an organisation that’s a real help to its people. It’s got a huge role in New Zealand.
‘‘You don’t realise how badly people with disabilities are treated until you get involved. In the old days, they were locked away. Now, with mainstreaming, there’s still a lot of fear and suspicion. I guess we’re still in transition.’’
His rugby and riding days are over – ‘‘I broke down on the wing at Te Kawau, did my knees, that’s why I ride a bike these days’’ – but he fondly remembers taking an Australasian polo team to the Coronation Cup at Windsor in England. He met the Queen, and the team nearly beat the English.
‘‘No, I don’t ride horses now. I’m too fat!’’ He roars with laughter. Being Manawatu’s mayor had been a privilege. He had seen people at their best and worst.
‘‘This would have been my last term as mayor anyway. I’ve done what I wanted to do. Public life of this kind, as a leader of a community, I don’t think its a position you should stay in forever. You need change, new people to bring in new ideas.’’
His advice for whoever would follow him was to learn how to get a decision and learn what you could and couldn’t win.
‘‘People who don’t understand that will never make any progress in this game.’’
Possible new job: