9 Jul 2023

Ian McKelvie: Parliament's last country squire

From The House , 7:35 am on 9 July 2023
The National Party MP for Rangitikei, Ian McKelvie makes a quip while chairing the Governance and Administration Select  Committee through the Estimates Hearings 2023.

The National Party MP for Rangitikei, Ian McKelvie makes a quip while chairing the Governance and Administration Select Committee through the Estimates Hearings 2023. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, as a Member of Parliament you can make progress without having to be mean to people.

That’s according to National MP Ian McKelvie who is to retire ahead of October's election after three terms in Parliament and is the latest subject in The House's series of exit interviews. 

An MP representing the agriculture-focused electorate of Rangitikei, who also owns farms himself, McKelvie is something of the genial country squire. A throwback to a not-so-distant era when it seemed most National MPs were in Parliament primarily to represent farming interests. And yet McKelvie has ended up as a parliamentarian who isn’t defined by the tribal lines of party politics. 

For McKelvie the opportunity to enter Parliament came along rather unexpectedly, when former Rangitikei MP Simon Power resigned suddenly and the National Party came knocking.

"My father always said 'if a gate opens, you always want to go through it'. And so I came here not really having an agenda to come here. I got into public life primarily because I like New Zealand how it is. I think there's always improvements we can make, but I think we're a wonderful country to live in, and I wanted my grandchildren basically to have the same opportunities that I'd had and probably their children as well."

A former mayor of Manawatū for nine years before he entered Parliament, McKelvie says he has enjoyed being an elected representative for his people.

"I like being an electorate MP. That's what I do. I wouldn't want to be here on the list, certainly not at my age," says the 71-year-old who is currently the oldest MP in the Parliament.


When you ask MPs from various parts of the political spectrum which other Members of Parliament are friendly across party lines, McKelvie's name often crops up in their answers. In contrast to the attack dogs on the opposition front benches, the Rangitikei MP is more of a golden retriever with a friendly smile. He prefers a collaborative approach, and this has been evidenced by his work chairing select committees, most recently the Governance and Administration Committee.

"I came here at a much older age than most people do. So I'd seen a lot more of life than most people have when they come here. And I knew a lot of the government's or the Labour Party's MPs, for example I had a lot to do with Andrew Little before I came here. So I knew a lot of them reasonably well. And they knew me, I suppose," he explains.

"But I also think that you can make progress without having to be, I guess, mean to people. And I think that that's one of the things I've sort of taken to the select committees, basically. And I've spent a little bit of my time here educating the new MPs about select committees and I just think that you can do things in a pleasant manner or you can do them in another manner, and I've seen some - who I won't obviously name here - but I've seen some in this Parliament who don't behave particularly well in select committees, and I don't like it. 

Ian McKelvie in the House 21 Feb 2018

Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

"You see, everybody who comes into this building either works for the Parliament, or works for someone who's submitting to the select committees or as a private individual coming into the parliament. And we owe them all respect, whoever they are, and I don't think any of them should be in any way mistreated, or even mis-spoken to. So I don't like that sort of thing. And I think it's unnecessary."

Agriculture conduit

Farming had made McKelvie a significantly wealthy man before he came to Parliament. In his maiden statement in Parliament, he spoke of the battering that agriculture was getting in this country. Does he feel now that due to the need for change in agriculture because of the climate crisis, farmers are still getting battered?

"I don't know whether I'd call it a battering so much. I think we bring some of these things on ourselves, whether we’re politicians or farmers. And I think one of the great mistakes we made in agriculture was effectively to stop the progress that [former prime minister] Helen Clark very early in her time wanted to start with respect to environmental challenges that agriculture faces," he says, alluding to the so-called 'fart tax', a levy on livestock methane gases proposed by the Labour Party-led government in power two decades ago in order to reduce carbon emissions. 

The National Party threw its wholehearted support in behind farmers who bitterly opposed and protested against the tax idea until it was dropped. McKelvie now describes that as a mistake.

"I think that we shouldn't have stopped the bus. I think we should have slowed the bus. And I think if we'd done that in the late '90s, we'd be in a much stronger position now in agriculture. And I just hope right now that we don't stop the bus again now, because I think that the incremental changes that we can make in agriculture particularly will have huge potential for the New Zealand of the future.

"I think that was a retrograde step for agriculture in New Zealand, stopping it. I think it needed to be measured. And the problem with these three-year [Parliament] terms, I think, is that you get governments forcing stuff that if they had a little more time, they wouldn't have to force to the same extent, and we've seen that with the Labour government right now, doing exactly the same thing. You get put in a position where you want to make change, and then you feel you have to, I guess, force the change. And that's what causes the problem."

Accountability and accessibility

Among the advice McKelvie has for new MPs, or indeed those staying on, is to not be one of those politicians who evades responsibility when they mess up.

"The sooner you admit you're wrong, the sooner you're forgiven. And I just don't understand why we deny what's going wrong. And I think that's the strongest bit of advice I could give to ministers for example. They need to just throw their hands up and say that's not working well, we can move on,” McKelvie says.

"I think that people who work in public life are basically doing what either MPs or councils tell them to do. They don't have a choice, that's council policy or government policy. And so all of that stuff [criticism] needs to be directed at the MPs or the councillors, not at the public servants, because effectively they're doing what we've told them to do. And so I think that's the first thing people need to understand. 

"The second thing is, MPs are human. I think I came here with a pretty good background of being told what people think of me - I don't have any problem with that at all. I think you've got to just accept that sort of thing, because in fact you put yourself out there and you need to have opinions given to you quite frequently. That's what this job is about. 

"I've never trespassed anyone from my office either. And I think that everyone's got a right to go to an MP's office. We've just got to make sure that our staff are well looked after and secure. And I think we did a pretty good job of that now too."

National MP Ian McKelvie has been added to the 'bench' of assistant speakers who can supervise the House from the Chair.

Ian McKelvie served briefly as an assistant Speaker of Parliament. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Now that his job as MP is nearing an end, he is taking stock of more than two decades in public service. McKelvie, who had a brief stint as an assistant Speaker, says he never had particular ambition to be a minister. His energies were primarily focused around the needs of his electorate.

"You need a lot of energy to run an electorate. And I think that's the thing that I noticed most, as you're on the road all the time.

"I've been doing this for 21 years [including time as Manawatū mayor]. So it's a long, long time to be in the public eye. And you've got to do stuff every day. Well, I think I've done my turn, and it's time I let someone younger with more energy take over."

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