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Labour Fulfils Commitment To Rural Communities

The government has fulfilled promises made to rural communities before the election, Rural Affairs Minister Jim Sutton said today.

Labour had promised a Minister for Rural Affairs, and that voice in Cabinet for rural people had been delivered, he said. This was particularly useful when changes to the electricity and telecommunications industries were being considered.

As Minister for Rural Affairs, Mr Sutton said he had prompted the responsible Minister of Education to review the provision of school bus transport to rural schools.

"This is a critical issue for rural people, because without a good bus service, young children are forced into the dangerous situation of having to walk along roads that do not have proper footpaths and that are often state highways with large logging trucks and dairy tankers thundering alongside them."

Social Services Minister Steve Maharey and Mr Sutton have also worked together to launch the Heartland Services Initiative which will see essential government services, such as ACC, DWI, IRD, and Housing delivered to rural communities.

"We anticipate having 15 Heartland Outreach services in small towns by the middle of the year. If communities find these services useful, more will be established."

Mr Sutton said the Government had also delivered on a Labour Party promise and had set up the Sustainable Farming Fund. This fund allocates grants to projects aimed at helping the rural sector overcome problems and take up economic, social, and environmental opportunities.

"The fund's purpose is to support community-driven programmes aimed at improving the financial and environmental performance of land-based sectors. It focuses on projects that are practical and show value for money."

There has been an incredible response to the fund with more than 350 applications being made to the first round.

Applications for the second round are being taken now, and the fund criteria have been widened to include small projects costing less than $10,000 as well as water management projects.

Mr Sutton said the fund was inspiring rural communities to work together and produce innovative solutions to community problems.

"It is exciting to look at what has been suggested."

As well as delivering new things for rural communities, the Labour-Alliance Government was also tackling issues previous Governments had ignored or put in the too-hard basket, Mr Sutton said.

The Government was reviewing the legislation governing the wine industry, in an effort to come up with a streamlined system. Public consultation on that had been completed last week. Decisions would be made shortly.

"This is something the National Government had just ignored, despite the fact that the wine industry earns huge amounts of export dollars every year - $182 million in the year to last September ? and has huge growth potential."

The Labour-led Government was also fixing legislation bungled by the previous Government, Mr Sutton said.

"National pushed through legislation changing the apple export industry, which has proved to be fatally flawed this export season."

The regulatory structure of the apple export industry is being reviewed and decisions on its future structure will be made soon.

Mr Sutton said the previous National Government had put a gun to the head of producer boards to try to force deregulation. That approach had failed dismally, unnecessarily destabilising some of New Zealand's most productive industries.

"The Labour-Alliance Government is working in a partnership with agricultural producers to devise new structures that meet modern demands, while having industry support, being fair to minority interests, and being in the public interest."

Mr Sutton said he and many other Labour MPs had met with people from rural communities all over New Zealand during the past year.

"Labour cares about rural communities, and we can demonstrate tangible proof of that."

In contrast, National had abandoned rural communities, he said.

"Mrs Shipley has moved from Ashburton to Auckland, and her walks around the Viaduct Basin seem to have blinded her to the rest of the country.

"National has no real commitment to rural communities. Indeed, its rural spokesman Shane Ardern is ranked only 31st out of the 39 National MPs. The only MPs ranked below him are first term MPs.

"No major political party has ever ranked agriculture as low as the National party has now. Gavan Herlihy is ranked at 20, which is just pathetic, given that agriculture earns about 60 per cent of New Zealand's export earnings. How the National party can claim to have any affinity with rural New Zealand is beyond me."

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