Fighting for a future on the East Coast

Labour's East Coast candidate Kiri Allan says there is a growing sense of hopelessness among those in her community. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

In the East Coast, industries are booming but some people are still struggling. Labour's electorate candidate has an uphill battle on her hands to unseat Anne Tolley, but Kiri Allan says locals deserve better support from their government.

In a spartan office near the centre of Gisborne, Kiri Allan’s wife Natalie is nursing their newborn daughter Hiwa-i-te-rangi while the aspiring Labour MP talks to a would-be constituent about a spate of youth suicides in the area.

“What is going on in their heads when they cannot see a future?”, the woman asks Allan.

“If there’s no mahi, no homes, it’s hard to feel good,” Allan replies.

The East Coast electorate has been solidly blue for over a decade, with Social Development Minister Anne Tolley holding the seat for National since 2005, but there have been some signs of a growing sense of dissatisfaction.

Gisborne was home to one of the few spontaneous moments from the campaign trail when packhouse worker Robyn Lane grilled Prime Minister Bill English on the minimum wage during his recent visit to the town.

Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon says the booming forestry sector and other industries have put pressure on the town’s infrastructure, with the Makauri aquifer declining and the roads below standard.

“In 2004, logging trucks going to the port - this is only one way - it’s 8900. Today, it’s 104,000.

“Same road, same pavements, same goat tracks in some places - we absolutely need capital for roading.”

Richard Burke, the chief executive of horticulture and fresh food business LeaderBrand, is also keen to see more investment in the region.

While Tolley has done a lot for local businesses, Burke says it was “frustrating to hear the Prime Minister say that we had growing pains in Gisborne - I think it’s more infrastructure pains because I don’t think we’ve had the investment from central government”.

'A real heaviness'

Labour has injected some excitement into the East Coast race with its selection of Allan, a commercial lawyer and one of the party’s rising talents.

Allan knows the hardships locals have faced: she grew up the ninth of 10 children, moving between small towns with her family.

“Hindsight’s an interesting thing, because you grow up and you see things that look right and you see things that don’t look right but you don’t know why, and I guess I grew up wanting to know why.”

She studied law and politics at Victoria University, where her lecturer Margaret Clark suggested she join a party to understand how politics worked. While she didn’t grow up in a political home, Labour seemed a natural fit given her family’s working-class background and connections to Ratana Pa.

An internship in then-Prime Minister Helen Clark’s office followed, then a stint at high-profile law firm Chen Palmer, before a return to the Bay of Plenty for legal work, where the region’s turn for the worse caught her eye.

“I grew up in these great communities, but there’s a real sense of hopelessness and desperation that is pervading through so many of our families...there’s a real heaviness that’s across a lot of our kids.”

Allan says the Government has prioritised profits over people, leaving many on the margins when investment in infrastructure could have made a difference.

While the forestry industry is doing well, she believes the region is missing a trick by sending off the logs for processing elsewhere instead of doing it here (Labour has said it will put $20m towards a local processing plant).

There are also problems with local roads: there are potholes around the town, and more significant safety problems on the roads which logging companies and other businesses rely on for freight.

Non-profits are “severely over-worked and under-resourced”, while the health system also needs more funding; Allan says there are no geriatric services for the elderly, while a family who suffered the death of an infant had to drive five hours to Palmerston North for a coroner’s inquest.

While the demographics of Gisborne would seem to favour Labour, Allan says there’s a loyal farmer vote in areas like Whakatane and Opotiki that favours Tolley and National, while poorer parts of the community feel disconnected from the system.

Running her campaign “off the smell of an oily rag”, she is happy with her team’s work but realistic about her chances of toppling Tolley.

“We’ve canvassed around 10,000 doors, so that gives us a litmus test and there’s a pretty positive feel, but I’m also practically minded, there’s an 8000 gap.”

At 21st on the list, Allan is almost assured the opportunity to represent the East Coast, even if it is in an unofficial capacity.

Fighting generational problems

Tolley acknowledges the difficulties faced by some in the electorate, but says the high unemployment rate is not down to a lack of opportunities.

“The forestry people tell me they’re a year behind with their pruning, simply because they cannot get people to work in the industry...the McDonald's guy said you could bring a busload of 30 people and I could give them all jobs.”

Instead, she points to complex social issues which stretch across generations and need to be unpicked carefully.

“In a third-generation home of unemployment there’s no structures there to support work, so you've got to do a lot of work with that family to support that work readiness and that work rhetoric.”

The task of setting up those structures has fallen to Manaaki Tairawhiti, a new locally-based initiative that will shortly mark its one-year anniversary.

Tolley says drug abuse is also a problem in an area known for cannabis cultivation.

A number of industries have a pass-fail drug test for applicants that trips many up - one reason for the Government investing more into rehabilitation services.

As for Lane’s critique of the minimum wage, Tolley says the Government has consistently raised it, “even right through the global financial crisis”, and has had to strike a balance between lifting wages and maintaining job growth.

The Accommodation Supplement and Working for Families payments have been boosted to help, while the Government has been helping with a regional economy strategy for the wider Gisborne region.

“In the end, governments don’t create jobs, it’s businesses, so you’ve got to support the businesses,” Tolley says.

Tolley has a simple explanation for her electoral success: “Because I work hard for them, I do take my responsibilities as a local MP very seriously and try to represent them as best I can.”

As for Allan’s candidacy, she describes her as a very able person and says it’s “good to have a fresh face” - perhaps pleasantries you can only afford with the benefit of an 8000-vote margin.

As for her chances of holding on, Tolley hopes her time in the East Coast will speak for itself.

“In the end you rely on the voters: people know me, they judge me on my record and you can only do that.”