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Scoop Column: The Politics Of Disintegration

Scoop's West Coast correspondent John Howard finds lessons in Bill Clinton's musings on Quebec and East Timor for New Zealand's increasingly embattled West Coasters.

As NZ politicians yet again make promises over the South Island's West Coast, US President Bill Clinton, speaking in Quebec Friday said, where there are dissatisfied groups in sections of countries, we should look to ways to satisfy those anxieties and legitimate complaint without disintegration.

In 1995, Quebec province came close to voting to split away from Canada following frustration with the Canadian federal system. Lucien Bouchard's Quebec provincial government, dedicated to independence, was re-elected less than a year ago.

Clinton said, " It is better for nations to work out problems with unhappy segments of their societies than to allow those factions to break away."

Referring to East Timor he said, " Does it mean East Timor was wrong to break away from Indonesia? No. But wouldn't it have been better if they could have found their religious, their cultural, their ethnic and their economic footing in genuine self-government in the framework of a larger entity, which would also have supported them economically."

Clinton is right, but for years New Zealand politicians have all been talking but nobody's listening.

Take the West Coast where I have lived for four years. The total land area is an equivalent distance between Auckland and Wellington, yet there is just 35,000 people.

Nevertheless, the West Coast is expected to function exactly the same as every other area of New Zealand and comply with the ever-growing number of laws which are not funded by Central Government. In other words, unfunded mandates.

Since the 1989 local government amalgamations, over 90 functions which central government used to do must now be done by local authorities; without any money from government to do it.

That's not unique to the West Coast, but to be expected to exercise that many extra functions with just 35,000 people is totally ridiculous, unreasonable and unfair. It's also not good or responsible government.

Coaster's know they possess New Zealand's "crown jewels" in a pristine environment - unlike other areas of New Zealand it still exists. But is it fair for New Zealander's to expect 35,000 Coaster's to be the conscience and carry the financial burden for the rest of the country?

The last thing most Coaster's want to do is cut down trees but they are scared for their future and their jobs. For the most part it's all they have.

Why is it, for example, that elsewhere in the world native trees which have fallen naturally in the forests and national-parks are able to be carefully extracted and milled? But not in New Zealand - we just leave them to rot. Why is it that government authorities recently sawed into pieces a beautiful large rimu tree which was alive when toppled onto a state-highway from a wind-storm? What a stupid policy! - what a waste of resource!

But when, over the years, people are continually misled by politicians, unsupported and get backed into a corner something has got to give.

Last month's angry display where Labour's Deputy Leader, Michael Cullen, had eggs thrown at him, was shouted down and had his car rocked was not the West Coast way. Anybody who has visited the Coast will attest to that. But it was anger born out of years of frustration. Exactly the same frustration which exists in Quebec against the Canadian central government.

For years our government has taken coal levies amounting to $3 million annually from West Coast coal. That's not being returned. When the ports were privatised West Coast council's, unlike other councils, got no shares. Without the income from those shares other councils around New Zealand would have to double their general rate.

Is it fair, then, that West Coast Regional Council ratepayer's pay double those of other regional council ratepayers and with incomes lower than the national average?

There is certainly a strong feeling of a West Coast community of interest. A 1996 Local Government Commission report put it another way. In its report entitled Investigation Into the Structure of Local Government On the West Coast it said, "The Commission likewise sees a political difficulty within a region, with a strong pioneering and development bias, in being able to ensure the election to a unitary authority of councillors who would be prepared to take a firm line on the preservation of the environment."

But that was in 1996 and things are changing, but perhaps not fast enough for the rest of New Zealand. It is also unhelpful when political rhetoric, expediency and grandstanding gets in the way of fair play.

I worry about Labour's proposal for an Economic Development Trust in lieu of the West Coast sustainable beech logging scheme. If people are appointed, or elected, to that trust who still retain "a strong pioneering and development bias" and who are not "prepared to take a firm line on the environment" then the final outcome may not be what New Zealand and the world needs or expects.

It's always important, when you have found a problem, to find a solution. And there are balanced solutions. Trouble is, everybody's talking at each other rather than too each other - and then nobody listens. That is a recipe for Bill Clinton's disintegration.

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