Kaikōura MP and National candidate Stuart Smith on economic growth and 'sharing the benefits'

Kaikōura MP Stuart Smith talks to music shop owner Ken Ham on the campaign trail.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

Kaikōura MP Stuart Smith talks to music shop owner Ken Ham on the campaign trail.

As part of a series with the Kaikōura candidates for the four largest parties, reporter Oliver Lewis door-knocked a business then sat down for a coffee with incumbent National MP Stuart Smith.

Ken Ham has had a steady stream of politicians in his Blenheim music store over the years: Jenny Shipley, Don Brash, Helen Clark, the names rattle off his tongue.

"I think we're on the way up, I really do," he tells his latest visitor, Kaikōura MP Stuart Smith.

The first-term National MP has just got back from an event with mental health campaigner Mike King, and now, with me in tow, he is busy doing the rounds. 

"No-one who was honest would say the last 10 years have been fun, but I'm grateful we're on the other side of it now - I've got huge optimism for the future," Ham says.

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Stuart Smith with his wife, Julie, at his Blenheim electorate office.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

Stuart Smith with his wife, Julie, at his Blenheim electorate office.

By 'it' I presume he means the Global Financial Crisis, something Smith later tells me New Zealand weathered and bounced back from because of strong economic management.

Standing on the shop floor, a pamphlet in hand and a bright blue National Party rosette pinned to his lapel, Smith listens attentively but does not press Ham for his vote.

"I'm out there showing the flag, people can make up their own mind," he says, before quoting an old saying, 'those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still'.

Smith speaks at the first 'meet the candidates' meeting held in Blenheim.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

Smith speaks at the first 'meet the candidates' meeting held in Blenheim.

A nice quote, and given Smith won the Kaikōura electorate by a whooping 12,570 votes last election perhaps converting voters is less important than keeping them.

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Not to call him complacent, as the representative of the fourth largest general electorate in the country by area, Smith has had to put in plenty of kilometres on the campaign trail.

"Clutha-Southland is the size of Switzerland, we're only the size of Israel," he remarks, scanning a map of the seat in his Blenheim office.

The vast 21,600 square kilometre area intrudes south into Canterbury, where Smith used to farm deer and sheep, and north into Marlborough where he moved in 1994 to grow grapes.

This led, eventually, to him becoming the chairman of the national industry body New Zealand Winegrowers, a position he held from 2006 to 2012 when he stepped down to focus on politics.

He had already been approached in 2011, around the same time he joined the National Party, to run against incumbent Kaikōura MP Colin King, but it was another year before he made his move.

As a show of respect, Smith says King was the second person he informed of his intention to run, after his wife Julie, telling the incumbent he would appreciate his support if he could give it.

"I said, 'may the best man win, and I won't do anything to undermine you until the selection occurs'," - a process that in late 2013 saw King ousted and Smith in as the heir apparent in Kaikōura.

Asked if he has been an effective electorate MP in the three years since he won the seat Smith responds emphatically in the affirmative, before taking me on a tour of some of his biggest achievements.

These include lobbying for the co-located colleges option for Blenheim, advocating for a proposed floating dry dock for Shakespeare Bay, and pushing for the Flaxbourne Irrigation Scheme and Hurunui Water Project.

Roading, too, has been a major focus, with Smith saying he lobbied hard for more passing lanes and a potential Blenheim bypass to be included in a business case the NZ Transport Agency prepared for the Picton to Christchurch section of State Highway 1.

But his major achievement, and the one he is most obviously proud of, has been his work advocating for the communities affected by the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake last November.

"It's a complete reality check on how you think about life. I've seen people who are absolutely in the worst circumstances, but I've seen them at their best," Smith says.

Not long after the disaster, then-Prime Minister John Key gave Smith a free-pass to come and go from Parliament as he pleased - the only caveat: he had to be back in the House to speak on legislation related to the earthquake.

This freedom also extended to being treated as a verbal punching bag by frustrated constituents, like one Kaikōura dairy farmer who gave Smith a dressing down using "the most abusive language I've ever had".

"I watched this person as he was downloading on me, and I felt you could almost see him growing in stature. He was getting this weight off him, and at the end of it he said, 'I'm sorry mate', and I said, 'look, it's my job'."

The earthquake, particularly the destruction of SH1 and the Main North Line also presented opportunities - ones Smith was quick to grab when he stepped in to lobby for the creation of a Coastal Pacific Trail down the east coast.

More than $1 billion was committed by the Government for the reinstatement of the road and rail corridor, something Smith is quick to point to as evidence it can handle the books.

But sharing the benefits is another trait he is keen to emphasis, noting that under National core benefits were raised for the first time in 43 years.

Marlborough has certainly been on an economic upswing, posting the biggest GDP percentage gain in the country for the five years to 2016, driven largely by the primary sector.

But as the opposition candidates have been quick to point out, the flipside of the economic success story is rising house prices and rents, homelessness, and, as they see it, a lack of funding for health.

On housing Smith agrees there is a shortage of supply, something he thinks comes down to the use of Blenheim properties for migrant vineyard labour, a reconfiguration of Housing New Zealand stock, and subdivisions being held up in the courts.

But he thinks the solutions are already in the pipeline, with vineyard contractors moving to purpose-built accommodation, more subdivision sections coming online, and HNZ again starting to buy properties in the region.

On health, he refutes claims by Labour that the health system has been underfunded to the tune of $2.3 billon over the past seven years, pointing to the fact National is spending record amounts.

"I've enjoyed the debates. I think there's been a pretty clear difference in style between myself and the other candidates. I've been about solutions, they were just about problems," Smith says.

And on the poll showing Labour ahead of National for the first time in 12 years. Is it concerning? "Only for the country's future," he quips, before adding elections under MMP are always close.

"I'd have to say the feeling on the street is better than it was in 2014," he says of his chances in the Kaikōura electorate.

"That's the feedback I'm getting, but we'll find out on September 23."

 - The Marlborough Express

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