Like many regions the Southland economy is suffering. Our largest employer, the Tiwai Smelter, is cutting staff and threatening closure, many of our meat works are also down sizing and there is a real possibility that we could lose up to 4,000 jobs. Local CTU convenor Anna Huffstutler decided that because the Government was taking a hands off, "the market will decide" approach to our impending crisis that something needed to be done. She organised a debate* and invited political parties, the Invercargill Mayor, Tim Shadbolt, and the CTU National Secretary, Peter Conway. By doing this Anna hoped to bring the issues into the public domain and force those who are in positions of power to present some solutions and possibly get some commitments for action.
Interestingly Invercargill's National MP Eric Roy could only make a day that didn't suit the other invitees and so Anna approached Clutha Southland MP Bill English, but he also was unavailable (as was Steven Joyce). It appeared that National couldn't get one of their 59 MPs to represent their Party at this important debate. Russel Norman couldn't attend because his second child was due, so co-leader Metiria Turei put up her hand to ensure a Green presence. Winston represented his party and Clayton Cosgrove attended for Labour as their spokesperson for commerce and trade (and replacing the initial representative, David Cunliffe).
National's reluctance to front up was reported in the local media which resulted in criticisms of the organisation of the event from Eric Roy who also complained about the lack of flexibility to work around his Stewart Island hunting trip. It would have been a better debate if National had fronted up because all those who did attend largely sang from the same song book (apart from Tim Shadbolt who promoted his latest idea of drilling tunnels through mountains to irrigate farmland and was accused of tunnel vision by a quick witted Peter Conway).
What was revealed in National's absence was that there was a great deal of unity amongst the parties that would potentially form the next government. Judging by the response from the 100 or so people in the audience (large by Invercagill standards) there was a good deal of support for the answers provided.
As a brief summary the following points were made and I haven't attributed them to any particular party as there seemed to be a general consensus (and at one point Shadbolt himself noted that if people wanted positive action then they should vote for the parties present):
- Asset sales had to stop and Meridan and the Manapouri Power station shouldn't end up in foreign ownership.
- Rio Tinto was manipulating the situation to serve its own ends and selling off Manapouri wouldn't help.
- The high dollar was the main cause of our struggling manufacturing and all parties agreed that the Reserve Bank Act needed to take into account a range of factors when managing our currency.
- There needed to be a far greater investment in research and development to make sure we were at the cutting edge of technology and to add value to our exports.
- There needed to be greater investment in training and up skilling workers and the unemployed.
- Southland has a resilient and innovative community with many success stories like the Southern Institute of Technology's zero fees scheme and the SBS bank. We just needed a little more support from our government.
- All agreed that the dominance of the Australian Banks in New Zealand was unhelpful and the billions of profit being dragged across the Tasman would be better remaining in the country and supporting our economy.
- Most referred to the BERL Report which claimed there was much potential in industries other than dairy if research and capital were engaged. Southland's timber, manufacturing, horticulture and education sectors were all under-realised.
- Southland produces 11% of export revenue from 2% of the population but our share of the tax take wasn't being reflected in government spending.
- We need to invest in jobs and higher wages, there is value in supporting a strong local economy as well as exports.
- We need to explore more economic possibilities not just oil, coal and dairy. A silica smelter made sense due the potential spin offs in renewable energy and electronics, it was worth exploring further.
- We need a plan and this Government has none.
What was abundantly clear to those who witnessed the debate was that the attempts from the Right to promote the view that any coalition of the left wouldn't last had little substance. While Winston Peters lacked the depth and detail in his answers that others provided there was still considerable agreement between them and an especially common view that proactive governance was desperately needed. I had the impression that if there was to be an election the following day, Eric Roy would be lucky to hold his seat.
Metiria explaining the Greens' plan to create jobs
*My son designed the poster, which later was subjected to some creative additions from a local National supporting blogger.