A bridge to voters' hearts
Palmerston North has been touted as one of four electorates National is targeting to win at September's general election, but Labour incumbent Iain Lees-Galloway describes its attempts to woo voters as a joke.
Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that $212 million would be invested in 14 state highway projects in the regions, including $25m to $30m to replace the Whirokino trestle bridge in Horowhenua.
The roading plan was announced at the party's conference in Wellington, in what Key described as "a significant new commitment in our regions". He said the regions had led the country's economic recovery and supplied a lot of the exports that paid New Zealand's way in the world, and the roading package would help spread the benefits of economic recovery across the country.
Palmerston North's National candidate and city mayor Jono Naylor said the bridge replacement was exciting for the city. It would enhance the transport link to Wellington, strengthening the region's role as a logistics centre. As well as being narrow, the present bridge cannot carry high productivity vehicles, which have to use the Shannon to Foxton road instead.
Horowhenua Mayor Brendan Duffy said it was a burden on the district council to maintain that road to service the national network. He has applauded the decision to replace the bridge.
It would create jobs during its construction, which was something the district needed to provide to improve the skills and engagement of young people in the work force.
But Lees-Galloway said the gesture was pathetic.
"I think it's an insult to the Manawatu region, that the best they can come up with to support development and growth in this part of the country is a project that's three years away and funded from the sale of state assets."
He said he could not see how the project would be of any significant value to Palmerston North.
Labour leader David Cunliffe said National's reinstatement of funding for regional roads was an election-year U-turn, and not the plan to revitalise the regions that voters were looking for.
Lees-Galloway said Labour's policies, including encouraging immigrants to move their skills and capital to the regions, and boosting KiwiSaver to help business start-ups, were part of a real focus on regional economic development.
Naylor said he had only heard through the media, not the party, that the Palmerston North seat was a particular target for National. He said he would be working to improve the National party vote and ensure the retention of a National-led government, with winning the seat for himself a secondary goal.
Lees-Galloway welcomed the battle.
"They targeted us last time, and my majority went up threefold. I'm pleased they are lining us up again.
"It will inspire Labour voters to get out and vote."
Naylor was also taking seriously the prime minister's warning that with polls placing National comfortably ahead, that voter apathy among those believing a National win was a done deal could work against the party.