Jones tackles northern issues

ON THE TEAM: Shane Jones returns to Labour's front bench.
ON THE TEAM: Shane Jones returns to Labour's front bench.

One of the Far North's most prominent political sons is back in the spotlight after being cleared by an auditor-general's report about a decision he made as associate immigration minister in 2008.

Labour MP Shane Jones, originally from Awanui, has emerged - after being dogged by his decision to grant controversial Chinese businessman Bill Liu citizenship - back in the party's front bench and vowing to work for the north in his new roles in regional development, forestry and associate finance.

Although keenly aware of the area's difficulties Mr Jones says that with a government that focuses on regional New Zealand's interests, there is potential for the north.

"We're hardy people," he says. The Far North with its Pakeha, Maori and Dalmatian roots has bred strong people who now need a lift from government.

"It's not as if we're genetically incapable of turning our fortunes around, but if we're neglected and left in a vacuum rest assured areas such as Whangape become known as Whanga-P, the odious influence of drugs, etcetera, starts to leave marks."

In his time as an MP, since 2005, he says he's learned that as much as it's practicable, it's important for the MPs of the north to work together. The removal of Whangarei MP Phil Heatley from his ministerial position - he was then the sole cabinet member from the north - is indicative of a government that doesn't focus on the issues that matter here.

Mr Jones says that politically it might be seen that government can treat the north "like chooks - throw them a bit of wheat on a three-yearly basis and they'll all come back to the henhouse".

Mr Jones says there ought to be a fund available to drive development in the region that involves civic leadership, business and iwi.

"Development initiatives in the north that exclude iwi - I'm not particularly interested in hearing from them," he says.

He says those who hold positions of "official importance" have a duty to challenge the culture of low expectations in the north.

"Maori resources, starting with the people themselves, are underutilised, but that's because in the north we've tolerated a culture of low expectations for so long in relation to Maori matters," Mr Jones says.

"We've got to change the culture of low expectations - there are blocks of Maori land that could serve far more productive purposes."

He says owners need to work more closely with those who have expertise, capital and access to markets, but he says the Government needs to provide leadership "and turn those resources around in a relatively short period of time so that they become productive, rate-paying assets, generating employment and returns for the north".

There are what he called "special areas" - areas of the Hokianga and areas of the extreme Far North where the Government ought to support the reforestoration of marginal land. "Start to plant those areas again, with Crown assistance, in partnership with iwi or other landowners," he says.

Kauri, totara, puriri and other native species that may take a long time to grow ought to be planted, he says. "They will improve the ecosystem, the biodiversity, water quality - it's a long term investment, but that's what would benefit those particular areas.

"There'd be an upside in terms of tourism but in the short term it'd absorb labour, it'd require people to do the grunt work up front," Mr Jones says.

But that's not happening, he says, because what's needed on a broader level is "a level of very active government involvement in increasing investment in regional New Zealand.

"This is a government that has the facade of being free-marketeers, but deep down their efforts seem to be really confined to a narrow cast of economic players," he says.

"And if you're not tied up in the big end of town and likely to enjoy the fat fees from the privatisation - if you're out in the regions, and the regions are struggling, the government's not interested."

Northern News