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Regional Shifts Leave Nats High and Dry

It’s about partnerships: and regional New Zealand is booming...
Paulo Politico is first published on

Regional New Zealand has traditionally been cast as the Cinderella of the national economy.

The stereotypical view of regional New Zealand is basically an agrarian one where the smell of fresh silage and a vast network of number-eight fencing wire are commonplace.

Tragically regional New Zealand has tended to be overlooked by successive governments.

In the days of first-past-the-post, regional New Zealand was the bastion of the National Party.

But in more recent times National tended to overlook the regions. Former National leader and Rakaia MP Jenny Shipley and her husband Burton took up residence at an apartment on the Auckland City waterfront. Current National leader and Clutha-Southland MP Bill English has also tried to spend more time in the city of sails.

One has to wonder if the reason for the apparent trek to Auckland was about Auckland issues or Auckland voters. The cynical part of me says it’s about votes as opposed to issues.

But what of the regions? Well during the 1990s the regions were governed by a National government that believed that regional economic policy was inefficient and unnecessary. Under that ethos market forces would decide the key investment decisions affecting regional New Zealand.

That’s a narrow and arrogant view of regional New Zealand. It is also a view that cost National dearly in 1999.

Two years on and the champion of regional New Zealand is actually Jim Anderton.

To his full credit it has been Anderton who has reactivated the regions and brought them into the limelight.

His determination to support regional and industry development through the creation of Industry New Zealand and the Ministry of Economic Development has won him accolades with business, local government, community and voluntary sector leaders, as well as his own colleagues in the Labour-Alliance government.

Anderton neatly sums up regional development as, “the creation of strong, locally-directed and sustainable regions which generate jobs and opportunities and meet the economic, social and environmental needs of New Zealanders.”

There is considerable evidence to support the contention that Anderton’s focus on regional development is baring fruit.

The latest National Bank survey of regional trends published in February 2002 illustrates that year-on-year growth (for December 2001) remains the fastest in the provinces. The survey points to regional economic growth in Southland (8.1 percent), Manawatu-Wanganui (5.3 percent), and Taranaki (4.9 percent) contributing to help fuel economic growth nationwide.

At a time when the terrorist attacks on 11 September last year have undermined economic growth worldwide, regional New Zealand has remained remarkably durable and buoyant. Economic growth is helping to fuel retail trade, house sales and employment growth.

It’s a recipe for success. As business, central and local governments, the community and voluntary sector work in partnership to stimulate growth, so it is that regional New Zealand flourishes.

Who will ever forget Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt merrily launching a campaign to attract more people to Southland to help address the labour shortage, caused by a booming local economy, fuelling employment growth?

What a wonderfully refreshing dilemma for a region that, for so long, was left to age and decay while successive government’s focussed on other parts of the country.

The electoral power of regions should not be forgotten either.

It’s certainly not lost on the current government. Jim Anderton has been meticulously networking with key business and local government leaders in regional New Zealand over the past two years. On the Labour side Jim Sutton continues to star as a champion of rural New Zealanders.

The opposition is foolish to write Sutton off as an uninspiring farmer and politician from south Canterbury. In fact he is an incredibly astute Minister who is responsible for some of the trickiest portfolios – agriculture and biosecurity. He is also arguably the most successful Minister for Trade Negotiations since Mike Moore held the job between 1984 and 1990.

Backing up Sutton is a group of proactive government MPs who hail from regional New Zealand and have represented the interests of their regions with distinction.

Invercargill MP Mark Peck can boast his city securing funding for a new regional hospital and police station, as well as topoclimate funding and the launch of the Humpridge track. Good news for Southland.

East Coast MP Janet Mackey can boast increasing house sales in Gisborne as well as funding for suspensory loans and other measures to improve living conditions for low-income households in East Cape.

National have been dragged kicking and screaming to the regional economic development table. Ironically its latter-day ‘road to Damascus’ conversion in favour of regional economic development is due more to the political forces of demand and supply as opposed to a philosophical conversion.

Both Helen Clark and Jim Anderton campaigned on a promise to create jobs by focussing on industries and regions. They campaigned on that promise in 1999 and will go into the 2002 election boasting an impressive record of making good on that promise.

In contrast National largely ignored regional New Zealand during the 1990s. Now in 2002 the party is in catch-up mode. A promise by National to invest in regional New Zealand comes three years too late.

National’s economic and regional development spokesperson Tony Ryall forlornly states that National wants to “work in partnership with regional communities to attract investment, create jobs, and improve infrastructure”.

Too late Tony. Just as National turned off the regional development switch during the 1990s, voters are now turning off that party in 2002.

The investment in regional New Zealand is a very significant achievement. Regional New Zealand is helping to drive the national economy. This fact has been critical to maintaining the country’s economic health following the terrorist attacks of 11 September last year.

This year should see regional New Zealand infuse electoral support into the veins of both Helen Clark and (theoretically) Jim Anderton. Time will tell with respect to the latter.

But Labour is well positioned to bite deep into anaemic National’s traditional electoral heartland. Proof of that trend will reveal on polling day later this year.

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