Hawke's Bay a microcosm of NZ's growth and skill stresses

Immigration is key to keeping Hawke's Bay moving, businesses say. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

Famous for its wineries and orchards, Hawke’s Bay has a regional economy that is cyclical and heavily reliant on immigration. Shane Cowlishaw explores what effect a potential change of Government could have - and what’s being done to get local young workers into jobs.

Despite its sunshine and wine, Hawke’s Bay has always struggled with a relatively high unemployment rate.

Things aren’t as bad as they are up the coast in Gisborne, but unemployment in Hawke’s Bay is sitting at 5.8 percent, up 0.8 percent from the previous year. The rate for New Zealand as a whole is 4.8 percent.

While there are questions about whether those figures are misleading, there is a general consensus that Hawke’s Bay is in need of a new economic plan.

In the wake of several years’ boom growth driven by the horticultural industry, that new plan is underway.

Dubbed ‘Matariki’, the Hawke’s Bay regional economic development strategy was launched last year as a partnership between the Government, local authorities, and iwi.

It aims to encourage a collaborative approach to diversify the region’s economy, increase jobs and income, and boost investment.

The eventual goal is an extra 5,000 jobs and the plan was kicked off with funding to improve roads to Napier Port and money to explore the feasibility of an expansion to the National Aquarium of New Zealand.

An ambitious part of the plan, called Project 1000, will provide 1,000 new jobs for unemployed Hawke’s Bay workers over three years and reduce reliance on immigrant workers.

All up, Matariki consists of 45 actions all up, for immediate implementation.

So what has happened since it was announced?

Stu McLauchlan, chairman of Business Hawke’s Bay, said the community was still waiting for the economic development agency to finalise its plans.

Things had not moved as quickly as some would have hoped, which was partly due to getting all the councils on the same page.

“One of Hawke’s Bay’s weaknesses is its regional governance. I don’t want to get back into the amalgamation debate, but we are a region of 150,000 people roughly and we have got five councils.”

But once it was up and running it would be of great help to the region, which had experienced three years of buoyancy in the horticulture industry, particularly around apples, he said.

Newsroom wanted to talk to Matariki about the strategy, and how many jobs had been created under Project 1000 to date, but programme manager Alister King did not return calls.

While a plan is underway to boost Hawke’s Bay’s currently robust economy, business leaders are agreed that one thing could bring it crashing down – a change to immigration laws.

The Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme (RSE), that allows employers in industries such as horticulture and viticulture to hire overseas workers when needed, is vital to the area.

Just under 4,000 workers are brought in each year to pick fruit and harvest grapes, keeping businesses afloat.

Lesley Wilson, president of the Hawke’s Bay Fruit Growers Association, said the industry had a policy of hiring New Zealanders first when possible.

But the reality was that there were simply not enough people to fill the positions.

“The RSE policy is imperative. We can’t get enough New Zealanders, they’re just not there.”

Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne have plenty of NEETS (those aged 15-24 who are not in employment, education, or training).

They could fill the positions currently held by immigrants, but getting them trained and on the job is a difficult task.

Wilson believes the schemes, including Project 1000, that have been put in place to do just that have been working well.

This year more than 150 fruit growing apprenticeships had been filled, while a decade ago they struggled to get 10, she said.

McLauchlan agrees that one of the main problems was getting skilled people and any changes to immigration policy following the election would be an immediate handbrake to the region’s growth.

“Talking about immigration, there’s always the question ‘why do you need immigrants to pick apples?’ – Unfortunately at the moment, we don’t have the workforce that are there that are willing and able to do the work.”

“If we didn’t have the RSE workers coming into Hawke’s Bay it would be devastating. It’s a political football I understand, but if you cut off the immigration here the place will grind to a halt.”

Nash’s Napier to lose

It’s possible that following the election one of Hawke’s Bay’s local MPs could have a hand in shaping the economic development of not just his own region, but all of them.

Napier’s Stuart Nash is currently Labour’s spokesperson on the issue, and there’s a chance he could become the portfolio’s Minister if Labour form the next government.

Crystal ball aside, he would appear to be safe in at least holding on to his electorate seat on Saturday.

In 2014 Nash was a list MP and won the seat for the first time, defeating National’s Wayne Walford and the Conservative’s Garth McVicar.

This year McVicar is gone and National has a new candidate, David Elliott.

A pilot with Cathay Pacific, Elliott is honest about his chances of unseating Nash.

At 55 on the list he is unlikely to make it into Parliament through the party vote, so it’s all or nothing.

“My goal is to obviously win but I’m under no illusion because I came into it quite late, I haven’t had three (or) nine years advertising so the biggest issue is recognition, so I know it’s an uphill battle but if it wasn’t a struggle it wouldn’t be rewarding.”

“It’s win the seat or nothing for me. What I tell everybody is Stu’s number 11 on the list he’s guaranteed to get in. He doesn’t need your vote but I do, it’s a two-for-one deal.”

Elliott jokes that since joining the race he has been told on numerous occasions that he’s representing the wrong party.

He entered politics after becoming an activist for disability and medical marijuana rights, through fighting to secure the substance for his severely disabled daughter.

Eventually, they won and she was prescribed Sativex, which reduced her seizures by about half.

Asked why he chose National, Elliott said it was because he believed in personal responsibility, that people should get out and work to better themselves.

But another hint is his response when questioned about what Hawke’s Bay’s biggest challenge is.

“I would say that we don’t want growth to stop, I would say we need to keep the economy ticking over so Hawke’s Bay continues to grow, so the biggest issue would be any slowdown to our economy,” he responds.

Across town his opponent, Nash, immediately leaps to police shortages as the region’s most pressing issue.

The subject is a favourite (he’s also Police spokesman) and he is upset Napier does not have its own station.

But he also believes that Hawke’s Bay needs to be more ambitious in its economic goals.

“Regions start looking for the next big thing, you don’t need to look for the next big thing, you need to look at what you already do well and think how can we do it better.”

Nash is supportive of the Matariki strategy and not critical of its progress, but dismissive of initiatives from the government such as Project 1000.

He wants to see the economic development plan kicked into overdrive and argues Labour’s plan to provide $350,000 over two years to any development agency with an MBIE approved plan would do just that.

Getting more NEETS into work is key and providing a proper career path beginning at the start of high school would assist in getting young people working, Nash says.

But he insists that businesses who rely on the RSE scheme have nothing to fear if Labour forms the next government.

If a region absolutely needed migrants, they would have them, but the system would be tweaked so that people were sent to areas requiring workers and made to stay there rather than using it as a launching pad to Auckland.

“If you’re moving to New Zealand and you’re moving to Hawke’s Bay, you’ve gotta be here.”