The job vacancy problem in New Zealand’s rural districts


Meet Ashburton, population 20,000 and about 80 kilometres southwest of Christchurch on State Highway 1. Ashburton is a rural service town for a largely rural district that extends from the Pacific coast to the Southern Alps, from the Rakaia River to the Rangitata River.

Ashburton District has a problem. It is critically short on workers. So short in fact that there are about 500 known employment vacancies at the time of writing this. Many of the vacancies are in Ashburton township, but also in its hinterland on farms where farmers need farmhands or in smaller towns such as Hinds, Methven and Rakaia.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Ashburton District is the public perception of the town and the district. To many it is just a town to stop off and fill the petrol tank up, get a bite and take off again. 20,000 people living in a town that is almost exclusively geared towards the rural sector does not entice most urbanites to leave their comfortable fortresses and venture into rural mid Canterbury. With the only major tourist attractions being the ski field at Mount Hutt and the Lord of the Rings set tours that go to where Edoras was built on a glaciated outcrop

It is not to say that there is necessarily anything bad about Ashburton. It is a pleasant enough town with nice gardens and the Ashburton River immediately south of the town. The Rakaia River is only 20 minutes driving away and one can be up Mount Hutt in just over an hour. But what if fishing, skiing and Lord of the Rings are not your thing?

One thing that Ashburton is likely to have working in its favour is relatively cheap housing. It is far enough away from Christchurch to not be influenced by the Christchurch rental market.

Ashburton is not alone in having this problem. Clutha District Council in Otago has an even bigger employment crisis. It currently has around 800 known employment vacancies.

In the case of Clutha District, it too is a predominantly rural farming district. But rather than one or two large towns, it has several smaller towns scattered throughout. The major attractions that can be offered in Clutha District are the Catlins, which is a nice scenic coastal area in the southeastern most corner of the South Island. During winter the lakes and reservoirs inland from Dunedin host curling competitions on their frozen surfaces.

Both districts have a problem in that they are seen as being “on the way” to somewhere else. In the case of Ashburton District, it could be “on the way” to the Mackenzie Basin, to Christchurch or Timaru. In the case of Clutha District, it could be “on the way” to Dunedin, Queenstown or Invercargill.

Neither seem to have seriously advertized their staffing shortages. And how much effort did they put into giving incentives for people living in larger towns to move into these rural districts. They are not simply going to walk away from their current lives without a job and clear incentives to move, such as assistance with accommodation and getting established, as well as adequate pay. Both Districts could advertise the relatively low cost of living, the out door attractions. Both despite being rural districts are within easy day driving distance of larger populated areas (Christchurch for Ashburton District and Dunedin for Clutha District).

Perhaps when these issues are addressed, there might be hope of Ashburton and Clutha sorting out their employment issues.

8 years since first Canterbury quake; Insurance still fiddling and farting


530,000 Cantabrians went to sleep on the night of 03-04 September 2010 thinking tomorrow would be just another day. Probably not a single person thought about the fault lines lurking underneath the alluvial gravel plains that Canterbury and Christchurch sit on. But many, many people will remember that freight train like rumble coming through the night, the frantic staggering to the doorway as the house began to shake.

When the shaking stopped about a minute later, it was immediately obvious a major earthquake had hit. The power was out, as was water and sewerage. A steady stream of aftershocks continued bolting through in the remaining hours of darkness and into the day, the days, the weeks and months.

Within days aftershocks of a human kind had started. Completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen them, E.Q.C. had the rabbit in a headlight look – frozen, not knowing what to do and completely unable to assist customers. With every big aftershock a new claim would have to be lodged. With each one, new reports and inspections would be needed. New case managers would need to be assigned or reassigned.

Whilst there were initially 240,539 claims needing to be solved, of which 240,021 have been, 8 years of putting ones life on hold whilst waiting for a Government agency to get its act together is quite shocking. But that was the case of one lady in Christchurch on the consumer affairs programme Fair Go last night.

8 years, many more earthquakes later and it is now obvious that E.Q.C. actually DOES know what they are supposed to be doing. They just do not want to. For reasons only understood by their bureaucracy it is somehow not in their interests to wrap up the remaining several thousand Christchurch earthquake claims that should have been wrapped up by my guess not later than the start of 2015.

Imagine that.

Let us be honest. Earthquake Commission, and the major insurance companies have no intention whatsoever of finalizing the remaining claims and New Zealanders should stop deluding themselves into thinking otherwise.

90 days or see you in court, is what I say the Government should tell them. During that time they should prepare the necessary legal documents for the court, and on the 91st, these should be served.

There is no excuse for any of the on going delays. There is only so many times a report can be written without covering material covered in previous reports. There is only so many times an inspection can be done before the inspectors see that they are looking at things they have already sighted. There is only so many times anyone trying to get to the bottom of this should ever have to put up with bureaucracy before they have a case to make against the officials in question.

That time has long since come for E.Q.C. and the insurance companies.

South Island being short changed by Government


“Everybody south of the Bombay Hills” is a common reference to everyone not living in Auckland. It is generally used in the context of political commentary on Government decisions where New Zealanders not living in Auckland are likely to come distant second in Government funding or policy announcements.

The recent announcement by Minister of Transport Phil Twyford that billions of dollars are to be spent on Auckland and other North Island transport projects was a rude jolt for many in the South Island. Whilst an announcement on funding for the Southern Motorway was made for Christchurch, there was precious little else for the South Island to be happy with. It broke a promise that Labour made to spend $100 million on trains for Christchurch. It ignored the West Coast, Otago, Nelson, Marlborough and Southland completely.

But worst of all it sent a message to people south of Cook Strait that they are not important.

Yet people wonder why the South Island is getting so frustrated. Much of the power that is generated in the South Island goes to the North Island This has been the case for years and I am assured by a friend in the know that the Police keep a permanent watch on the Cook Strait cable to make sure no one interferes with it.

I am not so surprised by the resentment. It has been around for years and at times has gotten strong enough as to give rise to small political parties that have the vision of separating the South Island or at least making much more effort to include South Island interests on the Government agenda. It has given rise to internet based groups that have – among other things looked at alternative flag designs for the South Island.

Richard Prosser, former New Zealand First list Member of Parliament might have seemed a lone wolf in the mist when he advocated for South Island separatism before entering Parliament. However he was not the first. Nor the last. In 1999 the South Island Party stood at the General Election and got 2,622 votes. Not many, but the fact that it became a verified party with 500+ paying members suggests that such sentiment is capable of becoming more organized. The South Island Party disbanded and another party that replaced it never got enough paying members to be verified as a legitimate party.

Still, one cannot help but wonder what it would take for South Island nationalism to start creeping back into the fringes of New Zealand politics. How many more policy and budget announcements that short change the 1.1 million New Zealanders south of Cook Strait could be tolerated?

The answer might not be as many as people think.

E.Q.C. report nothing new


Another E.Q.C. report – the same old story: disgruntled claimants, botched repairs and no one being made to take responsibility.

After 7 years of dealing with the consequences of the 04 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 earthquakes the latest E.Q.C. report was not surprising in the least, except perhaps with regards to how scathing it was.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Megan Woods has been in the job for 8 months now. Annette King who was appointed Chairwoman of E.Q.C.’s Board has been instructed by Ms Woods to accept the findings and begin implementing the recommendations immediately.

All well and good so far. But having spent most of a decade waiting for satisfactory resolution to their claims and fair, full and final payouts to match, many will be short on patience. Some of the claimants are in their 80’s and should not need to be still dealing with problems that might have started when they were still in their 70’s. These are the people who should be happily living out their final days enjoying their time with their relatives and friends, doing things they like and not having to worry about what the Earthquake Commission is or is not doing about their property.

The Earthquake Commission for its part needs to play along with Mrs King’s implementation of the findings. No time to delay, no games to play – anyone who begs to differ should be shown the door forthwith..

The report, whilst welcome has some serious issues to overcome, namely:

  • What will be the period in which claims can be settled – open ended settling periods are not acceptable and have been the cause of considerable and well documented angst among claimants
  • Will Cabinet approve the reimbursing of insurance companies if they agree to immediately settle on all over-the-cap claims? Ms Woods says that she will, but given the financial pressure it is likely to add, it remains to be seen if Cabinet will come on board
  • The standard of repairs needs addressing – the repairs should not have been signed off in the manner that they were until someone with neutral oversight could check the standard
  • Hire the necessary staff to do the job and stop pretending everything is under control when it is clearly obvious that it is not
  • Tell E.Q.C. that non-compliance is not an option

It is with guarded optimism that I wait to see what will happen. Having been in Christchurch for all of the magnitude 6.0+ events – 04 September 2011 (7.1); 22 February 2011 (6.3); 13 June 2011 (6.4) and 23 December 2011 (6.0) – as well as nearly all of the aftershocks between magnitude 5.0-5.9 and felt the stress, I can totally understand the frustration and anger. It is long since time to get this mess fixed.

No charges for C.T.V. building engineers


CTV building before 22 February 2011 and after (PHOTO: 3 NEWS)

At 1251 hours 22 February 2011 in an earthquake that could be technically classified as an aftershock of the 04 September 2010 magnitude 7.1 Canterbury earthquake, the Canterbury Television building on Madras Street, Christchurch collapsed. 115 people lost their lives. Investigations into who knew what about the status of the building found three people potentially culpable for its failure.

The C.T.V. building right from its design and construction was a fundamentally flawed building. On 26 December 2010, a violent magnitude 5.0 aftershock struck right under central Christchurch. Afterwards the C.T.V. building was given a second green sticker, siginalling it had been inspected and no damage likely to threaten the integrity of the building or peoples safety had been detected. This was a fatal mistake.

Today however, the New Zealand Police announced that they were not going to charge anyone over the C.T.V. building failure. The reasons given were:

  1. The threshhold of culpability with the probable charge of manslaughter was too high – the Crown had to prove that the conduct of any defendant charged was so bad as to warrant the distinction of being considered a serious crime
  2. The length of time that had passed between building and the deaths occurring

I accept that the threshhold required to prosecute in negligent manslaughter is very high. To do so one must be able to prove that the building would have failed if it were not for the design flaws.

However there are people who should have been looked at more closely than they were:

  1. Gerald Shirtcliffe (William Fisher), who faked a whole degree based another William Fisher in England who had finished a degree in civil engineering – completely unqualified to be working in the building industry at all and known to have made serious errors in his supervision of the C.T.V. building’s construction
  2. Alan Reay, who designed the building was working out of his depth and knew it
  3. David Harding, the engineer who was employed by Alan Reay Consultants failed to disclose at an Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand disciplinary hearing his involvement in the C.T.V. building design

I further think that the building code in 1986 was probably strict enough that if followed, the building might have still had deaths in it, but not a catastrophic collapse killing 115 people. Then the specifications set down in the then building code would have designed with the understanding that Christchurch is not immune to earthquakes, that seismic waves can be amplified passing through certain strata and that the seismic waves also induce vertical movement as well as side to side shaking.

A case does exist, nonetheless for amending the law to enable such suggested prosecutions to happen. The investigation should be conducted with the support of a technical expert – qualified I.P.E.N.Z. registered engineer, or other suitable person – who shall have access to whatever files are relevant.

It will not bring back the dead. It will not change the fact that on the day of the quake there was also uncertainty about who should be leading the rescue effort. But it will hopefully ensure that the C.T.V. failure on 22 February 2011 is the last of its kind in New Zealand and that New Zealanders pay due regard to such matters in the future.