Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett backs Coastal Pacific Trail

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett at Thomas's Department Store cafe, in Blenheim.

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett at Thomas's Department Store cafe, in Blenheim.

A proposal for a combined walking and cycling trail down the east coast has another high-profile backer in the form of Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett.

Bennett was on the campaign trail in Blenheim on Tuesday, rallying support for the National Party in what is shaping up to be a nail-biter of an election.

"It's tight, I'm absolutely confident we're going to win," she said, sipping a coffee at the Thomas's Department Store cafe in the town centre.

"But I equally think it's going to be close - it's a two horse race. I'm saying at the moment it's a marathon we're sprinting, and it's literally going to come down to every vote counting."

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Asked about the proposed Coastal Pacific Trail, between the Marlborough Sounds and Christchurch, Bennett said she was "a big advocate for it".

She went on to talk about the $231 million of improvements on State Highway 1, which included an 11-kilometre shared cycling and walking pathway between Okiwi Bay and Mangamaunu.

Kaikōura MP Stuart Smith said people should not underestimate how much influence Bennett had on "having that piece done on that reinstated piece of road". 

Backers of the trail welcomed the July announcement, calling the 11km stretch a "phenomenal step" that took care of what had been a "stumbling block" for the project.

Bennett said while "everyone can take a piece of the victory" for the improvements, she would not say if lobbying for the Coastal Pacific Trail had resulted in the stretch of cycleway.

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On tourism spending in Marlborough, which had dropped 2 per cent this July compared to same month last year, she said "for everything you've been up against, I think that's kind of remarkable".

When SH1 re-opened Bennett said she thought Marlborough would have an "absolutely booming summer". "I want to be one of the first ones to drive it."

The Tourism Minister met with a group of Marlborough tourism operators during her visit to Blenheim, as well as paying a visit to Marlborough Boys' College and a rest home.

People were more engaged than she had seen them for a long time, something Bennett put down to Labour's leadership change combined with the prospect of a fourth-term Government.

She also accused Labour of creating a "rural/urban divide" with its policy around placing a royalty on irrigation, adding it felt like farmers were being "unfairly targeted".

Bennett brushed off a question about whether she would seek the leadership if National lost the election, saying "who wants to think about it? Bill English is going to be Prime Minister in 11 days' time".

She also heaped praised on English, the former finance minister, for the way he handled the global financial crisis, before adding that strong economic growth came with its challenges, including housing.

"But it's a growth we can manage and that we're up for the challenge of. It's better to have that rather than a whole lot of empty houses and people flocking overseas," she said.

Other parties were treating immigration like a "political football", and reductions of the sort proposed by Labour and New Zealand First would "affect businesses here in Marlborough".

Asked about comedian Tom Sainsbury's Snapchat videos impersonating her as someone with a love of cafe culture, Bennett laughed and said her family and friends thought they were "hilarious".

"At least once a day I get people shouting at me about paninis, or bowl lattes," she said.

 - The Marlborough Express


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