Government banging on about bridges misses the point in most impoverished region in the country

Is there a male National Party minister who has not appeared in a paddock or at the side of a clapped-out bridge in Northland this week?

It is that region's lucky break to have the Government's full attention. First, the "top dogs" appearing awkwardly in a field on the side of one of the region's roads to adorn it with the pumpkin-headed gourd of the new candidate; and then, a four-man photo op in front of a bridge featuring the up-and-coming National Party "all-stars": Chris "Babyface" Bishop and Simon "Loveable" Bridges.

The latter media opportunity was greatly enhanced by candidate Mark Osborne helpfully waving his arms for the cameras, demonstrating how cars would be zooming this way and that over them in a best-case scenario.

Chris Bishop laughed unconvincingly, and John Carter laughed knowingly.

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Then they all went home to wait to win the byelection.

But I couldn't help thinking to myself that if this spectacular show of force seemed slightly overpowering, are actual bridges also a bit of a flashy sideshow? Better bridges would be appreciated, of course, but it's just that the people of Northland have one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the country.

Tourists and holidaymakers will be the main beneficiaries of this latest bit of pork.

Through the rubric of National Party belief, this makes a huge amount of sense. The party believes that business growth is the key to the fortunes of everyone - and that includes infrastructure that allows the wheels of commerce to turn without potholes.

Tourism is certainly a very important money-maker for Northland, and domestic and international visitor numbers are increasing, justifying further investment.

It's just that the investment promised in the lead-up to this byelection is little and late. Also, years of under-investment in the people of Northland - ensuring they are all healthy, educated and employable - is ultimately going to frustrate the ability to get amazing tourism ideas off the ground.

That promised $69 million to fix one-way bridges would have had a much more immediately helpful impact almost anywhere else in the region.

It's no secret that the Northland community is the most impoverished, on average, in New Zealand - especially its Maori community. Seventy per cent of its adults, and 85 per cent of its children, are on the wrong side of the deprivation index. Nearly 48 per cent of Northlanders make $20,000 a year or less. Up to a third of that Maori population have no work, and that population also has the highest neo-natal death rate and teen pregnancy. And so on.

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The problem has almost got so big that it's impossible for a government to admit to it without making itself out to be ineffectual - especially if it has had seven years to work on these Third World-style indicators. But that doesn't mean there aren't some obvious places to start.

A great one to tackle, perhaps with $69 million that is apparently floating free at the moment, would be to improve doctor-to-patient ratios in Northland, which are the worst in the country (last statistic: 149 doctors in a population of almost 160,000). There is also, in the area, a chronic shortage of speciality health services, with patients needing high level cancer and cardiac care, for example, having to trek to Auckland for it.

According to a report from the Northland District Health Board, the region will need another 170 hospital beds in the next 10-15 years as it deals with a tsunami of need from a disproportionately poor and sick population, especially those with diabetes.

The board is having to make some hard decisions in order to keep ministering to this population with constrained government funding, according to its own projections for the next 20 years.

Of course, there's no way $69 million can address all this, but surely to even just ease the workload on medical professionals in Northland would be an incredibly helpful start in tackling this catastrophe-in-the-making.

Another approach, of course, is to engineer it so that even though you have all the power and the budget to make a big difference, at the end of your week of porky promises, people are left with the idea that it's actually the Leader of the Opposition that doesn't care a jot for Northlanders. A brilliant ruse - and so, so much easier.

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