Shearer slams PM over capital dying quip

GUEST SPEAKER: John Key with MP Maggie Barry and Takapuna Beach Business Association general manager Peter White at a meeting with Takapuna's business leaders last week.
MARNIE HALLAHAN/Fairfax NZ
GUEST SPEAKER: John Key with MP Maggie Barry and Takapuna Beach Business Association general manager Peter White at a meeting with Takapuna's business leaders last week.

Wellington is a vibrant city and Prime Minister John Key's criticism is wrong and "absolutely negatively", Labour leader David Shearer says.

He slammed Mr Key's suggestion that Wellington was a dying city.

"This is absolutely negatively John Key talking about Wellington, it's a vibrant city, anybody that goes down to Courtenay Place on a Thursday or Friday night knows that."

Wellington had a good cafe culture, good businesses, and most diplomats posted here said it was the best posting to have, Shearer said.

Key had made a mistake and the problem was stagnant economic growth around the country, not just in Wellington.

"Wellington's not necessarily all that atypical. What we need to be seeing is the provinces growing and creating jobs and instead of that we're seeing a lot of flow to Auckland and particularly to Australia."

Wellington's Labour MPs, Grant Robertson and Annette King, also lashed out over the remark, saying the only thing dying in Wellington was Mr Key's Government.  

Meanwhile, Mr Key has apologised for his comments about Wellington ''dying'', saying there is ''lots of activity'' in the capital.

Speaking to reporters in Parliament today, Mr Key said again that he should have chosen his words more carefully, and that he had not meant to cause offence to anyone.

''If I've offended them then I unreservedly apologise.''

He confirmed he had said ''among other things'' that Wellington had only government, Weta Workshops and Victoria University.

Key said the comments were in the context of the departure of major companies from Wellington over 30 years, especially corporate head offices, based on his experience living in the city.

''Actually Wellington is [an] extremely vibrant place. There's lots of things happening here, lots of activity. I'm not suggesting that [it's dying] in the slightest.''

Three of the 10 largest companies on the NZX, Contact Energy, Infratil and Trade Me are all headquartered in Wellington.

Mr Key ha told Takapuna business leaders last week that the Government did not know how to "turn it around".

This morning Mr Key attempted to clarify want he meant. "I should have said under sustained pressure, which would have been a better terminology."

The capital is "very vibrant, actually".

He added the exodus of "big, corporate offices" was putting a lot of pressure on the infrastructure of Auckland.

"We need to work on making sure that the proposition is for them to stay here in Wellington...the banks have migrated, the dairy board used to be here, Fonterra has migrated. That's been the pattern of those corporate head offices."

He said Auckland's population was expected to grow by more than a million in the next 30-50 years. 

"My main point was really there is a lot of sustained pressure on Auckland... we have got to make sure that we have a sustained build-up of economic activity around the rest of the country, not just Auckland."

Mr Key's comments came just weeks after a dismal report on the region's economy, put down in part to Wellington's poor relationship with the Beehive.

"The reality is even Wellington is dying and we don't know how to turn it around," he said at the Takapuna event.

"All you have there is government, Victoria University and Weta Workshop."

He was speaking during discussions on Auckland's contentious Unitary Plan - which looks at its projected growth, and how to handle predictions of one million extra residents within the next 20 to 30 years.

Mr Key said he was often asked whether some of those people should be encouraged to move to smaller towns and cities to ease pressure on Auckland. He said the idea had merit but would be difficult to achieve because other regions were not as attractive for residents or businesses.

"Auckland is a magnet for internal migration for its opportunities and, when you look at external migration, those from overseas are going to move to where their friends and family are, and that's Auckland."

The suggestion that Wellington was on the scrapheap was greeted with derision by mayor Celia Wade-Brown.

She had just finished welcoming a group of Chinese students yesterday, and said Wellington would happily encourage more internal and overseas migrants.

The film industry was booming and it was unfair to point only to Weta, as there were hundreds of other support companies as well.

More needed to be done to promote Wellington, but to suggest it was dying was ridiculous, she said.

"Maybe if John Key was out of the Beehive more often he would see it's all alive and well."

Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott said the comments were extraordinary, coming from the prime minister.

"I'm disturbed and dismayed that [the] Government seems to want to write off Wellington and there is no plan to fix it."

It was important the city did not rely solely on central government, but the loss of financial and manufacturing companies, along with deep cuts to the public sector, had left the city struggling, she said.

"I don't think you can be around in Wellington at the moment and not get a sense that the mood is low and people are feeling pretty pessimistic."

Wellington Employers Chamber of Commerce chief executive Raewyn Bleakley agreed, saying it was no secret the region's economy had been flat-lining.

But calling it a dying city was extreme.

"It certainly doesn't feel like a dying city to me. The city has a vibrancy that's the envy of many other cities, with our events programme, compactness, cuisine, and night scene leading the way in that regard."

Speaking after a Cabinet meeting yesterday, Mr Key did not deny making the comments but said he did not believe Wellington was dying.

He said he had been referring to changes at a head office level, with many companies moving their operations to Auckland since the 1980s, when he first arrived in the capital to work.

"I don't think it's dying, but I think it's an example of the contraction that's happening at Auckland's expense ... we have to do everything we can to make sure these cities outside of Auckland are seen as attractive places for businesses to be established."

The Dominion Post