Winston Peters has slammed a minister's decision to reject a proposal to use reserve land for a new marine facility in Tauranga.
The New Zealand First leader and Deputy Prime Minister, a former long-time MP of Tauranga, brought his campaign bus to his old stomping ground yesterday.
He held court in Red Square, blaming Covid-19 level 2 restrictions for only being allowed a small crowd and saying the region should be at level 1, in his opinion.
In an address where he sparred with hecklers, took aim at Labour and encouraged voters to use their party vote to "take out insurance", Peters also pledged $25 million in funding for a marine research centre in Tauranga if re-elected.
"What we need here, to use our maritime environment, is a marine university. New Zealand First will put up $25m to help build a world-class marine biology facility, right here in Tauranga," he said.
"This is the fastest growing city in the country but it needs far more investment to keep young people here, to add value here and aquaculture is one of our most exciting future industries," Peters said.
He later told media there was private money available as well.
The promise was not tied to a particular project, but he left the door open for a potential link to the University of Waikato's proposal to build $50.6m marine research centre in Tauranga.
In July, Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage blocked a bid by Tauranga City Council to allow the university's long-planned centre to be built on reserve land in Marine Park in Sulphur Point.
Asked about the situation yesterday, Peters slammed Sage's decision.
"I know more about Tauranga than the Minister for Conservation, to the extent that that is reclaimed land.
"So what on Earth was she saying when she threw it back?"
He said previously he had to to "keep [his] mouth shut" on the issue but he could talk about it now the campaign had started.
If re-elected, he would try and overturn Sage's decision.
Asked what he would do, he said: "Make sure I had a minister who understood the situation properly."
Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell told the Bay of Plenty Times New Zealand First had been "extremely active" in advocating for a marine centre in Tauranga.
Powell said he met with Peters and other party MPs after Sage's decision, and they worked behind the scenes to try and get her to revisit it before the election.
"We never discussed funding, we just wanted his support as Deputy Prime Minister... we knew we were running out of time."
Powell said he was still "very disappointed" as the centre would be of huge benefit to Tauranga's development as a university town, bringing jobs, international connections, education opportunities and "economic gravitas" that would draw other high-calibre investments.
An "exhaustive search" for a location established that Marine Park as the best place for the centre for many reasons, he said.
Powell was concerned Sage made her decision based on "misinformation" from "interest groups". He said he just wanted a decision based on facts.
Council general manager of strategy and growth, Christine Jones, said the council had not yet decided on a course of action for the Marine Park proposal.
"We will determine our way forward once we have received a response to an Official Information Act request we have made with central government."
Responding to Peters' comments, Sage said the decision about the reserve status and whether public open space should be built on was "separate to considering the value of the University of Waikato's proposal".
"My decision was based on the tests and values under the Reserves Act. There is obvious merit in a proposed marine research centre and I hope an alternate site for it can be found."
University of Waikato senior deputy vice-chancellor Professor Alister Jones said the university welcomed the support from New Zealand First to create a world-class marine research facility in Tauranga.
He said the party had not directly approached the university about the funding announcement. The university was waiting for a response from the Government to its application for funding for the centre from the shovel- ready fund.
Tauranga MP Simon Bridges said he had approached both Sage and Minister Shane Jones about the marine research centre.
"[I] am hopeful the decision will be changed so the centre can go ahead."
Peters slams Māori wards decision
Winston Peters slamming Tauranga City Council's decision to add a Māori ward without a public referendum elicited the perhaps the biggest cheer of his Red Square speech.
Asked about the decision by Tauranga resident Sam Taylor, Peters said it was an "absolute abdication of democracy".
"If you wanted Māori wards it should have gone to a referendum."
Tauranga has elected two MPs with Māori heritage in recent decades - Peters himself and current MP Simon Bridges of National.
"You don't need tokenism, you don't need special laws, you need local Māori to go and vote in local government politics like everybody else," Peters said.
Bridges has previously spoken against the Māori ward decision and yesterday reiterated his view that it should be put to a referendum, in comments to the Bay of Plenty Times.
Mayor Tenby Powell - who voted for the Māori ward - said Peters was entitled to his opinion on Māori wards, which he had expressed in the past, but Powell maintained Tauranga would benefit from having a seat for Māori at the council table.
Asked why the council had not held a referendum, he said in his view it would be "better if that was initiated through the community" as a result of the debate the council had initiated with its decision.
A community-initiated petition would force the council to hold a referendum if it reached the signature threshold.
Te Puke stop
The Te Puke Economic Development Group hosted Winston Peters' campaign stop on Tuesday night.
In response to a question about the horticulture sector, which has been struggling to find staff to pick its fruit, Peters had a new solution to this problem.
"It may be that we need to fly these people [seasonal workers] out of Vanuatu and out of Tonga and out of the Pacific on military planes to get them here," he said.
"They [these countries] are Covid-free so they don't need to go through the quarantine."
Peters, who is also New Zealand's Foreign Minister, said that New Zealand's military could be doing "so much more" to prevent more economic damage in the horticulture sector.
He said the NZ First-led Provincial Growth Fund had delivered "massive" results for regions such as the Bay of Plenty and would continue to do so, and that the Government needed to focus more on KiwiRail "connecting areas like the Bay of Plenty and Northland" with maritime and roading routes.
- Additional reporting Samantha Olley, Jason Walls