The battle to boost the regions

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and Q-West Boat Builders general manager Colin Mitchell take a tour of the Whanganui facilities. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

With political parties fighting over who appreciates the regions most, towns like Whanganui have reaped the rewards of funding promises. But how are they faring, and what more could be done to help?

The battle for the hearts and minds of the regions has been in full swing this election campaign.

Under both Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern, Labour has blamed National for neglecting the regions and causing communities to suffer.

National has countered by accusing Labour of driving a rural-urban divide through its tax proposals.

Both have turned to the tried and trusted approach of offering cash as a sign of their appreciation for the hard-working regions.

In Whanganui, Labour has offered $3 million for the development of the town’s failing Castlecliff Port, followed by National pledging up to $6m towards the redevelopment of its velodrome.

At a rally in Whanganui on Monday, Ardern told a cheering crowd of hundreds she would match National’s funding pledge if elected.

“There’s a reason our billboards say stronger regions - I grew up in small town New Zealand [and] I’ve always had a belief that we will not succeed as a nation until we make sure that we put a focus on strengthening jobs and infrastructure, the services that exist in our regions.”

A positive vibe

Whanganui Chamber of Commerce board member Brendon Bartley says business is actually pretty good at the moment for those in the town.

“It’s quite a positive vibe I’m getting: tradies are busy, builders, the manufacturing sector we’re all pretty full on.”

Bartley, who is also the general manager of Ali Arc Logistics, says the port revitalisation will be vital for businesses like Q-West, a boat building company which Ardern visits later in the day and which is investing $4m in expanding its facilities and relocating the Castlecliff.

“I’m not sure whether the ferry thing will fly,” he says, referring to plans for a freight ferry from Castlecliff to Motueka.

The velodrome redevelopment will also help, while the forestry sector is starting to grow in the area.

The biggest issue for most companies is getting skilled staff: Bartley knows of hairdressers struggling to fill positions, along with vacancies at IT and architecture firms.

He says the solution isn’t immigration, but training up locals to do the work.

“We have enough people in Whanganui to do that. It’s about making sure they’ve got the right skills to cover of the basics: reliability, being capable.”

The area also needs young people to help with business succession plans. Affordable housing helps with that: Bartley recently hired someone from Christchurch who wanted to be able to buy a home of his own.

He says the Government could help further by moving call centres for agencies like the IRD to Whanganui.

“It doesn’t matter if you answer the phone in Whanganui or Auckland, does it? Nobody will notice the difference” - while it could also try to encourage another big industry to join the likes of AFFCO and Mars Pet Food in the area.

“Having one more big industry like that employs 200 to 300 people has a flow on effect for all the smaller businesses around Whanganui.”

Fighting for Whanganui

Whanganui is home to two of the more competitive electorate races in the country.

In the Whanganui electorate, Labour’s Steph Lewis and National’s Harete Hipango are vying to replace retiring National incumbent Chester Borrows, who has held the seat for 12 years.

While Borrows triumphed by over 4500 votes in 2014, the race is expected to be closer this time, with internal Labour polling putting Hipango’s lead at as little as 1.3 per cent.

Hipango, a 52-year-old lawyer of Ngati Apa and Nga Rauru affiliation, says Borrows leaves big shoes to fill - but not too big.

“I don’t say that disrespectfully or with any sense of arrogance. I’ve just had a lifetime of being committed to people -- people have always been front of mind.”

Born and raised in Whanganui, she developed an affinity for politics as a child on the marae, while the Moutoa Gardens protest in the 1990s further stirred her sense of injustice.

Hipango says Whanganui suffers from high levels of deprivation - “some people would call it poverty” - but argues the hardship is more than material.

“There’s an impoverishment of attitude and the ability and know-how to get on and do things.”

In her telling, regional development is about both business enterprise and “people enterprise” - ensuring they have access to education, training and employment, “all this stuff we’ve heard about for decades”.

Hipango says the port development will bring flow-on effects, while National’s velodrome pledge will also provide a boost.

“It’s something that Whanganui has been working on and awaiting for number of years - having that injection will open up a whole heap of scope and opportunity around tourism, around events.”

As for the electorate race, “close is good, close is fine”, with she and her team having put in the hard yards.

“Whichever way it goes, I’ll still continue to give service.”

"Someone said to me, if it's a rock-star economy where's my ticket?"

Lewis is optimistic about her chances, pointing out that Borrows was the first National MP to hold the seat for more than a term.

“I’ve always said Whanganui is a winnable seat...I believe it’s very very close, and I can do it.”

The 28-year-old says her parents' experiences started her on the path towards politics.

Lewis grew up at Kaitoke Prison Village where her father worked as a prison guard, watching people go into prison: "No one was able to tell me what led them down that path."

After her parents brought a block of land in Waverley, her father's dreams of becoming a farmer slipped away as issues with the farm's access road forced them into legal battles.

"That made me decide to do all I could do to help them, and people like them, to get a fair go."

Lewis has worked in community law and dispute resolution, trying to help people to reach an agreement without ending up in court.

She says access to healthcare is a major issue in Whanganui, with no access to a full-time GP in northern areas of the electorate.

While it's good to see new businesses popping up, Lewis believes there should be more investment in infrastructure projects and research and development - areas where the National government has let Whanganui down.

"Someone said to me, if it's a rock-star economy where's my ticket?"

Tight in Te Tai Hauauru

In the Maori electorate of Te Tai Hauauru, Labour incumbent Adrian Rurawhe is seeking to hold off his main challenger, Maori Party candidate and former Kiwis league player Howie Tamati.

A Maori Television poll gave Tamati a surprise 13-point lead, but Rurawhe seems unfazed as he waits for Ardern to finish shaking hands and posing for selfies.

“I try to avoid talking about the methodology they use, but the reality is it’s the largest electorate in the North Island, and only 25 per cent in the electorate have landlines so 75 per cent are never going to get polled.”

His door-knocking has delivered more positive results, while the new leadership team has also provided a boost - particularly Kelvin Davis as deputy.

“I had him here and we got 150 people...a lot of them I’d never seen at a Labour event before.”

While Te Tai Hauauru covers a swathe of the lower North Island, from the South Waikato to Porirua, Rurawhe says voters’ issues are often the same: poverty and inequality, housing (from homelessness in Porirua to the quality of rentals in Rangitikei), and suicide levels.

In Whanganui, youth unemployment is at the top of people’s minds.

“I talk to a lot of parents that have got teenagers or someone in their family that’s not in education, training or employment…

“It definitely is a challenge but we believe that Labour has a number of things we can do to address them.”

“I never get ahead of myself - you’ve got to play the full 80 minutes.”

Tamati has clocked up about 2,000 kilometres travelling around the electorate, and says people’s concerns are “pretty standard”, including health, housing and employment.

One area of particular concern is the potential damage done through seabed mining, with Tamati backing a challenge to a consent granted to Trans-Tasman Resources to mine off the coast of Patea.

While the region’s economy has been robust, he believes there are unexplored tourism opportunities on offer - particularly in his home province of Taranaki.

“It’s probably a guarded secret in some regards, some locals don’t want a big influx of people, but it’s beautiful and there’s a lot of opportunity.”

As for his seeming lead, Tamati says “polls are polls”, and unsurprisingly opts for a rugby league analogy to describe his attitude.

“I never get ahead of myself - you’ve got to play the full 80 minutes.”

Politicians' promises

Among those in the crowd to see Ardern is Jill Winchester, a new arrival to Whanganui having shifted from Hastings three months ago in order to buy a house - something that had become unattainable in her former home.

Despite this, Winchester didn’t believe housing was the main problem facing New Zealand: instead, climate change takes top place, and she believes a coalition government of Labour and the Greens has the best chance of protecting future generations.

“It’s just going to change radically how we’re going to live in the future.”

Up the road outside a dairy, eighty-year-old retiree John Sanson isn’t a big fan of politics or politicians: “They promise you this and they promise you that, but when they get in nothing much happens.”

Nevertheless, he’s planning to vote for Labour, as he has in the past. He sees them as more worker-friendly, while National are “more business people”.

Sanson has lived in Whanganui for the last 30 years, and says the town “hasn’t progressed a heck of a lot” over the years, with a stagnant population.

He’d like to see more government support for the manufacturing sector, perhaps encouraging businesses in some new areas to supplement “the same old ones” that have been around for a while.

“I think National have done their time man...Labour need another shot.”

Over at The Mushroom Cloud, a store dedicated to vaping products, 35-year-old Kyle Rerekura is planning to pop down to the advance voting spot one day this week.

He and his family have always been Labour voters, and he’s planning to do the same again.

“I think National have done their time man...Labour need another shot.”

Rerekura describes Ardern as “great eye candy”,and says she could appeal to young Kiwis who don’t normally vote.

He grew up in Whanganui, leaving in 2001 only to be drawn back 14 years later.

“I couldn’t believe how much I missed this place man.”

There could be more job opportunities for locals, he says, while homelessness seems to have increased, but that doesn’t shake his innate sense of pride.

“I love this place - this is my hometown.”