Our sur­vey re­veals a for­got­ten belt of provin­cial NZ where hard-work­ing Ki­wis fear con­cerns about health and jobs are be­ing ig­nored. By Liz McDon­ald, Sam Kilmis­ter, Liu Chen and He­len King.

Sunday News - - BUDGET BUSTER -

GE­ORGE Lon­don lends an arm to his last pas­sen­ger of the day, a 90-some­thing woman who steps out of his shut­tle van after a spe­cial­ist ap­point­ment at Whanganui hos­pi­tal.

‘‘What else can I do?’’ the St John vol­un­teer driver asks. ‘‘We do care about them, but we do strug­gle. You’ve got to keep the shut­tles go­ing. You’ve got to keep the fuel topped up and what­ever the Gov­ern­ment seems to give us, it never seems to be enough.’’

There’s no burst­ing-at-the­seams hos­pi­tal in the Ran­gitı¯kei elec­torate where Lon­don lives and works and helps out. There’s no hos­pi­tal at all.

In this ru­ral North Is­land com­mu­nity, hos­pi­tal wait­ing times and un­der­funded men­tal health ser­vices are dis­tant de­bates. They would be happy just to be able to get to Whanganui or Palmer­ston North for their health­care.

The com­mu­nity is plead­ing for more sup­port for the no­to­ri­ously un­der-funded St John Am­bu­lance shut­tle ser­vices – a big is­sue for a com­mu­nity that has been se­verely af­fected by the cen­tral­i­sa­tion of health ser­vices since the 1990s.

But they feel that down in Welling­ton, no­body is lis­ten­ing.

By the weight of their sheer, bustling numbers, city dwellers speak loudly in na­tion­wide pre­elec­tion polls, muf­fling the voices of ru­ral and provin­cial res­i­dents.

Other West­ern na­tions have been caught by sur­prise when heart­land votes re­vealed what polls had dis­guised. Think Brexit and Trump.

In New Zealand, while city chat­ter about house prices and com­muter trans­port has at­tracted na­tional me­dia and po­lit­i­cal at­ten­tion, provin­cial con­cerns have had less air-time.

Dig­ging down into in­di­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ties, our Sun­day NewsNeigh­bourly sur­vey of more than 2000 Ki­wis re­veals how city, provin­cial town and coun­try vot­ers’ con­cerns dif­fer in the elec­tion lead-up. It’s not quite the rust-belt of the US – but there is a strip of provin­cial New Zealand weav­ing its way up the coun­try, loop­ing around the big cities and wealth­ier lush green dairy coun­try to take in provin­cial towns like In­ver­cargill, Grey­mouth, Motueka, Palmer­ston North, Dan­nevirke, Hast­ings, Gis­borne and, up north, Whangarei and Kaitaia, and the farm­ing dis­tricts that keep those towns alive.

In that belt – we’re call­ing it the Boom and Bust Belt – sur­vey re­spon­dents are not so wor­ried about is­sues like the ur­ban hous­ing cri­sis that have trou­bled the elec­tion cam­paign.

Nei­ther do they share the city­d­wellers’ op­ti­mism about the econ­omy. In­stead, they are deeply con­cerns about such peren­nial chal­lenges as jobs and health­care – and, they rightly say, the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers just aren’t talk­ing about th­ese prob­lems.

When you’re an hour or more from a ma­jor hos­pi­tal, and doc­tors are hard to at­tract to your area, ill­ness, dis­abil­ity and age­ing carry an ex­tra sting.

The Neigh­bourly sur­vey found res­i­dents of provin­cial elec­torates and towns – like In­ver­cargill, Palmer­ston North, Taranaki-King Coun­try and Ran­gitı¯kei – were the most pes­simistic about health is­sues. Most op­ti­mistic were Auck­lan­ders, Welling­to­ni­ans and Cantabri­ans.

This is per­haps not a sur­prise, when one looks at the lat­est quar­terly re­view of district health boards. Those scored as per­form­ing best were those run­ning ma­jor city hos­pi­tals: Waitem­ata, Coun­ties Manukau and Can­ter­bury. The low­estscor­ing were in provin­cial ar­eas: West Coast, Whanganui, Bay of Plenty and Tairawhiti.

And in provin­cial ar­eas like Ran­gitı¯kei, with age­ing pop­u­la­tions, some res­i­dents in iso­lated, ru­ral vil­lages rely on the vol­un­teer trans­port ser­vice just to see a doc­tor.

There was a time when one of Ran­gitı¯kei’s main centres, Tai­hape, had a hos­pi­tal. A de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tion saw it closed sev­eral years ago and, much to lo­cals’ dis­plea­sure, re­placed with a health cen­tre.

Lon­don has been a shut­tle driver for a long time, and says the job is close to his heart. Based in Mar­ton, he says the ser­vice is the lifeblood of the com­mu­nity, and has long cam­paigned for more tax­payer sup­port.

He vol­un­teers his time three days a week for a ser­vice that re­lies on user charges and do­na­tions. It’s a fund­ing scheme that’s ‘‘crook and twisted’’, the com­mu­nity stal­wart says.

‘‘What I feel is a lot of pa­tients suf­fer with doc­tor’s fees. They’re in debt, and I’m talk­ing about hun­dreds of pa­tients here. Doc­tors only get rich on the sick and a lot of the sick are elderly.’’

How­ick cou­ple Xu Cheng, 28, and his wife Wei Duan, run the Kings BBQ restau­rant in Mead­ow­lands, East Auck­land.

The eatery doesn’t yet make them a for­tune, but it’s in­creas­ingly busy. It pro­vides for the whole fam­ily, so the mi­grant cou­ple is quite con­tent.

‘‘I feel very happy liv­ing here,’’ Duan says, ‘‘be­cause peo­ple are less pres­sured than those in China and en­joy a more care­free life.’’

Where life’s good, op­ti­mistic vot­ers aren’t hard to find. And the Neigh­bourly sur­vey shows this com­mu­nity, Botany, is one of New Zealand’s most up­beat.

The peo­ple are new, the hous­ing is new, the op­por­tu­ni­ties are new and lo­cals seem keen to get out and en­joy them. Many have come to New Zealand for a bet­ter life and they’re de­ter­mined to suc­ceed.

Xu Cheng and Wei Duan have been in the coun­try al­most a decade, and just cel­e­brated the third birth­day of their son, who at­tends a Botany kin­der­garten. ‘‘It’s great that the kindy em­pha­sises cre­ativ­ity, in­ter­est and in­di­vid­ual de­vel­op­ment,’’ Duan says.

What­ever the Gov­ern­ment seems to give us, it never seems to be enough.’ GE­ORGE LON­DON

Ge­orge Lon­don, above, vol­un­teers as a St John driver be­cause he feels the re­gions don’t get the fund­ing they need, whereas Botany lo­cals Xu Cheng and Wei Duan, right, are more up­beat.

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