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.

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.

Queenstown faces economic crunch


Queenstown: urban population 13,500.

When one thinks of Queenstown they think of a year round tourist play ground that thrives in both summer and winter. A play ground with a stunning scenic with lakes, mountains, fast rivers and a rich history of gold mining and more recently tourism. People fly in direct from all over New Zealand and from Sydney in Australia to take advantage of the Lakes District’s many offerings.

But is the same stunning landscape that makes it a magnet in the first place a potential choke? Sadly the answer is yes.

The geography of Queenstown, whilst ensuring its popularity as a scenic spot/holiday town, is also a potential choker on growth. Constrained by Lake Wakatipu on one side and high mountains on the other, Queenstown can only spread along the lake shore and into adjacent valleys.

Vineyards, orchards, gold mining relics are all nearby. There are multiple festivals such as the WInter Festival as well as the bi-annual Warbirds over Wanaka airshow and many others. But if Queenstown is subject to rampant growth for the sake of growth, a whole set of factors are likely to combine to make it no such a great place after all. Let us have a look at them.

Rents are high. For years it has been a place that has been barely affordable for locals, who no longer recognize it as the sleepy place it was 30 years ago. The demand for services, with new buildings springing up all the time, combined with its year round attraction means a continually booming tourist town, but with an under current of socio-economic problems that are not pleasant.

There is exploitation. Non New Zealanders have moved into the town, which is fine – the problem is not whether people come or not, but whether they are willing to comply with New Zealand labour laws. People moving in to make a quick dollar are not necessarily going care about the fact that there is a minimum wage applicable to all workers in New Zealand; 40 hour working week and holiday provisions for those who have to work statutory holidays.

There is a land issue. Queenstown cannot continue spreading endlessly outwards, or it will risk undercutting the businesses on the towns periphery that help to make it and the surrounding area so special. Going vertically up also has its problems. The taller the building, the correspondingly deeper the foundations will need to be and on land that is already at a premium, that might just be some sort of impenetrable ceiling. The geology of the land, relatively close to large faults means shaking intensities are likely to be fairly high in a large earthquake, which will make lateral spreading, landsliding and liquefaction likely.

And then there is the transport issue. The exponential growth of Queenstown and the accelerating growth of Wanaka has put major pressure on the roading network throughout the area. The airport has a plan to increase tourist numbers from 2 million currently arriving per annum to possibly 5 million. These are the only two transport modes in and out of the town. No railways exist – where would you put one even if it was viable? – and catering for 30,000 vehicle movements on peak days – that is about 20 a minute, every minute, all amount to a distinctively unattractive problem.

By all means come to Queenstown. Stay a couple nights. Travel on the T.S.S. Earnslaw up to the end of the lake. Visit the nearby gold mining sites. But don’t be surprised if this place is close to hitting its limits.

Unexpected ending to outstanding Super 15 season


The Wellington Hurricanes had everything going for them – a consistent lead at the top of the table; an in form team that was playing good rugby week in and week out; the hunger necessary to succeed against any team that took them on. They had two of the best All Blacks of recent times in Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu. With all this and a parochial home crowd to roar them on, one would have thought the 2015 Super 15 Rugby title was theirs for the taking.

But nobody told the Otago Highlanders, the plucky outfit from southern New Zealand, whose catchment population is the smallest of any Super 15 franchise. Comprising Otago and Southland, which is a geographically large area, but holding only about 270,000 people, it is small compared to Auckland. No one told their coach Jamie Joseph or Highlanders legend Tony Brown. When Otago were up the Highlander supporters in their thousands roared the length and breadth of New Zealand. And as the clock wound down to 80:00 minutes, after years in the wilderness and some very hard soul searching, the two southern provinces of New Zealand were finally able to believe that this would be their hour.

And win Otago did. There is no doubt that a lot of Wellingtonians will be smarting over this loss, but as Conrad said himself to a journalist after the match, there is no point in getting too hung up over the loss of a single rugby match. And although you will be missing the services of Conrad and Ma’a Nonu, whose S15 careers ended on Saturday, there is always next year.

But this is Otago’s moment. This is where the blue and golds can be piped into the Octagon by bagpipers wearing their kilts on a true Dunedin day in front of thousands of fans from across Otago and Southland. Enjoy your victory parade and the golden hue on a day of hopefully clear blue skies.