NZ’S BOOM AND BUST BELT
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.
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.