I’ve been handing out pieces of paper and banging on doors deep in the King Country. In parts of Jim Bolger’s old electorate it would be fair to say they haven’t changed their stripes much.
It’s common to find cheerful and welcoming people wondering why this handsome stranger is walking up the driveway, and then I tell them what the leaflet is all about and their eyes go down, and there’s a politely clipped “thank you”.
Then there are people who have had enough. “I think they’re all bastards,” they say. Sometimes it’s easy to agree.
And then there is a single issue that gets every head nodding: how are we going to create enough jobs to give our young people a future in our small and not so small towns?
In the heartland everyone is worried about opportunities for our young.
There are countless sheds stacked with bales of wool ready to be trucked away for processing. But you seldom see businesses that develop that wool into high-value exportable products - uniquely New Zealand, design-led successes like Icebreaker and Swazi that create beautiful products out of Kiwi materials.
Our dairy, timber and meat industries must have similar opportunities, but we have too few examples of success.
When thousands of Christchurch homes are desperately in need of rebuilding, we have mountains of unprocessed wood being shipped out of the North Island as unprocessed logs, and kids sitting around in hoodies with nothing to do.
Yet we are pouring tens of millions of dollars a year in benefits into many of these towns.
If it’s possible to spend money on welfare, it must be possible to spend it on creating skills and providing the capital kick start for new enterprises. If we can have academies of sport in every town, we can have academies of development.
Orthodoxy in Wellington says it’s wrong to try to prop up the economies of these towns.
Bill Clinton once gave a speech before he won the US presidency, dramatised by John Travolta in Primary Colors. He went into an American town like our Raetahi or Taumarunui right after a big plant had closed, and told the workers, “I can’t bring your jobs back. No one can.” They cheered his honesty.
It’s not about turning back to days of the past. We need to create new industries and businesses in the towns that grew up as service centres for our agricultural industries. It can’t just be tourism. We need to be more imaginative. But it can't be about abandoning them either.
One side of politics believes in hands-off government that sits on the sidelines and lets the markets decide the fate of small towns. The other side sees it as government’s role to get involved and try to make a difference.
There’s a strange disconnect going on where people want government to make a difference, but don’t believe it can.
One side of politics is telling them their communities are depressed, while the other is saying there is nothing to worry about. Both sides risk missing the point.
The heartland needs partnerships with government tailored to individual towns and building on the special strengths that draw people there in the first place. They need hope, not descriptions of problems, and they need a reason for families to stay, not leave.
Until they get it, they’re going to keep screwing up leaflets.
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