Comment: Northland continues to fall by the wayside when it comes to investing in our regions
Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Maori Art Gallery opened with the assistance of Provincial Growth Fund funding. Opinion They say the best time to get the attention of politicians is leading up to a national election, when the eyes of the country are upon them and their proposed policies. So, this is an open letter to New Zealand politicians on behalf of Northland - but not only Northland, all the provinces of New Zealand. The areas that have a larger geographic area but fewer votes. The fact that provincial New Zealand has less voting power than the cities does not make these areas less important. These are the regions that provide our food, our natural resource export base, that provide much of our recreation, and are many of the areas that we promote overseas to attract visitors to provide them with a great experience while they contribute to our regional economies, national GDP and economic success. Northland is the birthplace of Aotearoa New Zealand - from both the Polynesian voyagers and the European explorers. It is where Kupe landed. It is the site of our first capital, Kororareka, and the site of Waitangi, where the founding document of our country was signed. In many other countries, the birthplace of a nation is both celebrated and invested in. There is local and national pride in it, and most international visitors ensure it is on their itinerary. However, as a country, we have not yet taken full advantage of the rich history, culture and economic potential Northland offers. We continue to be challenged with poor roading across the region, unacceptable transport links to Auckland - its major market and supply source - poverty in many parts of the region due to the impact of past policies and health services that are not equal to other areas of New Zealand. How can we change this reality and celebrate the birthplace of our nation, respect our cultural heritage and make it easy for all New Zealanders and international visitors to make the pilgrimage to our first capital and enjoy the culture and region as a whole? Northland is huge - there is a lot of land, the climate is in parts subtropical, the scenery is incredible, the history needs to be told and there is a willing workforce. How can we take more pride in our birthplace, ensure it is properly invested in so we can celebrate this, contribute towards a thriving local economy, and in the process remedy the decades of inequity caused by past policies? A recent opinion article criticised the implementation of the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) against its prescribed goals including but not limited to job creation leading to sustainable economic growth, construction activity that could be under way within six months, and helping New Zealand meet climate change commitments. The journalist was technically correct in repeating the Auditor Generals comments that the implementation of that fund may not have strictly met its criteria. However, the comments around the proportion of investment into Northland in comparison to other regions ($657 million of a $3 billion fund) should be balanced through a lens of equity. The projects funded in the Northland region go some way to balancing the inequity of investment we have suffered in the past while creating tangible, positive benefits for our communities. Recently I attended the opening of the Ngawha Innovation and Enterprise Park , located just outside of Kaikohe. With PGF support, the park provides a hub in the Mid North where businesses and organisations can build a presence and capitalise on the potential of the area, both from a natural resource and job creation point of view. Certainly, through its efforts to date, the park has already created strong employment opportunities and benefits for the local community, and the philosophy of circular economy strives towards climate change commitments both overarching objectives of the PGF. Other such successful projects delivered through the PGF include the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Maori Art Gallery , digital hubs in Kaitaia and Kaikohe, the Oceania Marine travel lift, Hihiaua Cultural Centre and several wharf upgrades across the region, to name a few. If we take a more holistic view of the impact of this investment on Northland, it has been very beneficial. And as time goes past and we get over Covid and cyclone-related challenges, then we will see even more traction as such initiatives start progressing. However, to enable such positive change to continue, central government needs to continue to invest in the infrastructure, the local economy and the people of Northland. A purpose of central government is to redistribute wealth to areas of the economy that have needs (infrastructure, health, education), and also to encourage economic activity that will generate more wealth in the future. The challenge we have, particularly in Northland - but also in other regions - is that the investment has not been equitable over many decades. All New Zealanders have a right to an equal standard of living - roads in Northland or on the East Coast should be as good as the roads in Auckland, Hamilton or Christchurch. Health services and education services should equally be the same for all New Zealanders no matter where they live. It is fair to acknowledge that investment will be and needs to be greater or lesser depending on where the need is greatest yet that investment also needs to take into account previous decades of inequity and underinvestment, so a catch-up factor is also in play. And so, back to the PGF. It did a lot of good in the North, but the North is still playing catch-up to other parts of New Zealand. We need more PGF-type initiatives just to get to an even playing field. And perhaps the criteria used to assess such initiatives should be looked at again, so any future audit truly assesses the impact on the local people and the local economy and puts a sanity test on asking, Did this make a positive difference to peoples lives? So, my ask of politicians is: if you truly want equity in Northland - and equity for our regions - you need to continue to invest in them to deal with the major issues, the issues that need Government investment. When you remove these barriers, private investment will follow as business becomes easier to build and grow. It might not always be popular relative to other choices, and it might not be where the most votes are, but to ensure all New Zealanders have the same opportunities and the same standard of living, you need to deal with the decades-old catch-up issue and then properly invest for the future. If you do that, we actually look to a future that provides infrastructure that is needed, employment opportunities for our people and good health in communities - and hope for a prosperous future. Paul Linton is the chief executive of Northland Inc, the regions Economic Development Agency. A new economic impact report details the effects of repeated closures.