We talk to the youthful and conservative National MP Tim van de Molen.
Tim van de Molen has never eaten smashed avocado at a cafe and it shows.
At 34, he’s married with two young kids. He bought a farm when he was 29, he’s never lived outside of Waikato (though he did go on an OE in the mid-2000s), and he’s just been elected to Parliament as a National MP. Not your usual millennial, perhaps.
“Have you always voted National?” I ask him.
“No, I don’t think I have actually,” van de Molen replies.
But like any good politician-in-training, he can’t remember who else he’s voted for in the past.
“I’m not that young, it’s been a few years since I first voted.”
I point out he’s the same age as me and I remember very clearly the first time I voted.
“I really couldn’t tell you to be honest,” he says.
Van de Molen seems friendly, and polite and sensible, and he laughs at my jokes. He says “at the end of the day” a lot. He grew up in Matamata after a brief stint in Paeroa. His parents are primary school teachers, and he’s one of five siblings. He says there wasn’t a lot of spare cash around when he was a kid and he’s learnt to be frugal.
“So not such a National household?” I ask.
“That’s a fair assumption.”
“Are your mum and dad pretty proud of you?”
“Oh, I think so.”
His siblings, van de Molen says, give him a bit of flack about being an MP. But that’s what siblings do. Only he and one of his sisters have ended up farming. His other sister is a flight attendant, he has a brother who trains horses in Western Australia, and third van de Molen son works as a computer programmer.
Van de Molen wasn’t a Young Nat, he was too busy being a Young Farmer - an organisation he joined at 18 (and “aged out” at 31). In 2013, he won Young Farmer of the Year.
He says he's one of those people who’s always busy. He sets goals and achieves them. This means sacrificing things like smashed avocado, though he doesn’t judge people who choose to eat out.
“It depends on where your priorities are… I had a target,” van de Molen says. “I wanted to be in farm ownership by the time I was 30. I’ve had that goal for a long time, and I worked hard and I was really proud to get there a month before I turned 30.
“If I find myself twiddling my thumbs, I soon start looking for something to do.”
He also volunteers for St John, is a member of the Army Reserves, and loves to play sport, dive and hunt deer (though he only gets out a couple of times a year these days). On average he sleeps about five hours per night. This is probably quite good, given his children are 21 months (Isobella) and three months (Arthur).
While some people his age can barely look after themselves, van de Molen says his family was a thing to be carefully considered before deciding to put his hand up for politics.
Once he was picked to run for the electorate, there was little chance of failure - Waikato has been held by National since 1938, and he won by 15,452 votes. The aspiring MP's wife, Hilary, was able to give up paid work to become a full time mother (he says she’s amazing and is able to take a lot of this in her stride), and both sets of grandparents are around to help out.
He says he accepts that politics is a big commitment, with long hours and time spent in Wellington away from the family home in Tamihere - a settlement between Hamilton and Cambridge, characterised by large modern houses with double garages on lifestyle blocks.
As van de Molen became older, he became more engaged in politics. As he became more engaged, he found himself aligning with National.
“Did you think you’d be going into Parliament as a member of the Opposition?” I ask.
Van de Molen has farmed dairy, sheep and beef, and grown asparagus and has worked as a rural banker. He has a degree in social sciences with a psychology major, and drives a hybrid SUV. He says he wants urban people to understand that farmers aren’t all about polluting rivers and keeping pigs in crates. He’s very vocal about this.
About 80 percent of New Zealanders live in urban centres, he says.
“So many of those people in urban areas receive their information from, or base their understanding of rural New Zealand on, what they see in the media. What we have seen, unfortunately, over the last couple of years, has been quite a strong focus on sensationalised images and stories that don’t accurately reflect the current state of rural New Zealand.”
"Really?" I ask.
“It’s misunderstanding,” he says.
Van de Molen says farmers aren’t the only ones to blame for the environmental problems New Zealand faces, like the degradation of our waterways and increasing amounts of greenhouse gases that enter our atmosphere (49 percent of which come from the agriculture sector).
Farmers, he says, are the ones planting trees, fencing off waterways, driving the development of grasses that reduce methane emissions from cows, or nitrogen leaching into the waterways.
“But is this innovation happening fast enough?” I ask.
He brings up urban waterways.
During the election campaign, he says, rhetoric was around the environmental impact of farming, when, he says, the most polluted streams and rivers in New Zealand are in urban areas.
“Where’s the focus on what progress is being made in urban New Zealand? I think it’s terrible that we have beaches that are closed because of sewerage run off.”
In the Waikato - a region with 33 percent of the country’s dairy herds and about 1.4 million milking cows - urban areas make up about one percent of land area.
“For sure,” he says, when I mention this.
“That’s why we do need to see improvement in the rural space - but at the same time, be mindful that we’re all in this together and we all need to work on solutions together.
“All primary producers are reliant on the land for their income - so why would they damage it when it’s damaging their livelihood?”
'At the end of the day,' he reckons farmers can’t do it all themselves. But van de Molen wants you to know they’re trying.