Voyager 2021 media awards
New Zealand|Politics

The Road Ahead: A call for change in the south - what matters to Kiwis right now

David Fisher

Senior writer, NZ Herald


Bluff is a tremendous starting point for a road trip.

You follow the spirits North to Cape Reinga. Travelling in reverse feels as if to swim against the tide.

Here in Bluff the sun rises late but the people don't wait for it. There's work on fishing boats, container ships and the scattering of buildings that make up South Port.

Across the harbour is Tiwai Point. In a year, the aluminium smelter will calm and cool and 1000 people will be looking for work. It is expected easily as many again will feel an economic chill once the radiant warmth of the smelter dies away.

The uncertainty that has brought to Southland only adds to the uncertain future Covid-19 has brought into our lives. Will their be jobs in a year? Will the virus still be outside our borders?

The virus got inside our heads, even if it didn't get into our bodies.

Crayfisherman Jack Topi, 48, set the tone for Southland when asked about The Road Ahead. "We're a fishing-based town. It remains the same," he says.

Jack Topi, crayfisherman on Bluff. Photo / Mike Scott
Jack Topi, crayfisherman on Bluff. Photo / Mike Scott

From where he stands, outside a warehouse on Gore St in Bluff, the prospect of the path ahead is not dissimilar to that of those who went before.

The sea offers its bounty, as it always has. Historian Dr Mike Stevens, who lives in Bluff and studies its place in the world, writes of locals as tangata moana - people of the sea - as much as tangata whenua. In a town where almost half identify as Maori, these threads into the past are clear and strong.

For Topi, the constancy of the fishing work offers surety, albeit subtly altered by the tides of international fortune. This has happened before, when the Chinese market demanded larger crays, Topi's fishing shifted from Stewart Island to Milford Sound.

Tidal shifts

Covid-19 may demand its own tidal drift, and the fishing boats will rise or fall with the tide, but the work will go on.

There are about 10 who work out of Milford Sound, where the boat is kept, and they go out for a fortnight at a time.

It's not as straight-forward as it has always been. There's monitoring of fishing boats, catch reports, paperwork and red tape.

"I'm not really into politics," says Topi, before launching into a frustrated summary of the argument about cameras on fishing boats. It's an issue that has been argued back and forth across Wellington, with accusations NZ First blocked plans to install cameras on boats amid questions about the party's links to the fishing industry.

Tiwai Point aliminium smelter at dawn. Photo / Mike Scott
Tiwai Point aliminium smelter at dawn. Photo / Mike Scott

Topi's reaction has little to do with political arguments - "I'm not that into politics," he says - and a lot to do with the job he does in one of the most beautiful, remote and wildest parts of the country.

"How would you like a camera stuck 24/7 in your lounge staring at you?"

Topi makes the point that fishing crews don't fish all the time. How much surveillance is too much? And he's not oblivious to the arguments for cameras - he's seen waste at sea, although that was far to the north. It was not among tangata moana.

Across Southland and into Otago, there is a surety in what can be grown and harvested, both in the fact it will be there and that there will be a market for it.

Beyond the absolute clarity of those primary production industries - agriculture, farming, fishing - there is incredulity at the bureaucratic ball-and-chain seen to slow the work.

The cameras on the boats, the water quality issues on farms. With the economic crisis coming, are these things "nice to have" when jobs and trade are critical?

And yet, the road north shows what happens when less care is taken than should happen with industry.

Mataura madness

Solid Energy was a state-owned enterprise that went into liquidation in 2018. In the years previous, it conceived of a plan to mine lignite - so-called "brown coal" - for diesel and fertiliser, and to make fuel briquettes with the byproduct.

The briquette plant was built in Mataura, cost $30m. In the space of two years - 2011 to 2013 - it was built and mothballed. It never really operated, and sits now with rust on its padlock, as a testament to the byproduct of industry.

In this case, the briquette plant is a lesson in measuring twice and cutting once.

Further up the road, in Mataura township, is the abandoned paper mill. This was one possible location for the briquette plant when it was being planned almost a decade ago. It would have been better if it had been, because then it would not have been filled with dross from Tiwai Point,

The Mataura River flows through the town of Mataura in Southland. On the right, the closed down paper mill houses toxic 'dross'. Photo / Mike Scott
The Mataura River flows through the town of Mataura in Southland. On the right, the closed down paper mill houses toxic 'dross'. Photo / Mike Scott

In this case, the unchecked enthusiasm of two entrepreneurs saw them do a deal with NZ Aluminium Smelters for the toxic byproduct produced at the Tiwai Point plant. Their idea didn't work, the company running it collapsed at 10,000 tonnes of waste now in the paper mill next to the roaring Mataura River.

The insanity of it is that the dross produces a poisonous ammonia cloud when wet - and the river has come close to washing through the factory in recent years.

Otago farmer Mark Patterson, a NZ First MP, is an intensely practical fellow with a good sense of humour, which fails him entirely when he wonders at the inability of anyone to take responsibility for what is literally a toxic time bomb in the middle of a town.

The abandoned paper mill in Mataura which currently houses 10,000 tonnes of aluminium smelter byproduct. Photo / Mike Scott
The abandoned paper mill in Mataura which currently houses 10,000 tonnes of aluminium smelter byproduct. Photo / Mike Scott

"There's any amount of blame to go around." There's intense desire to fix the problem when spring causes the Mataura River to flood. Patterson has worked hard to be part of the solution.

"When the flood waters recede, so does the pressure," he says.

There's a tension for the present puzzle - do we steer out of Covid-19 with quick progress and risk not thinking enough of consequences? Or do we spend so much time in consideration that opportunity passes us by?

Nice - or necessary?

In Gore, the town of 13,000 people has lost many of its "nice to haves" with Covid-19. The Golden Guitars were cancelled, as were the Hokonui Fashion Design Awards.

Mark Paterson, not a NZ First MP, is general manager of the Mataura Licensing Trust, which supports both cancelled events among many others in the community. "It's pretty much thrown everything off," he says.

The impact, though, isn't what might be expected."We've come out of it unscathed, unlike the rest of New Zealand. We are a service centre. We don't rely on tourists. We rely on (cow) cockies."

And sheep farmers, like Logan Wallace, 30, who is at a nearby pop-up employment centre. He's also the meat and wool chairman for Federated Farmers in Otago, and trying to work out how to fill the employment holes appearing in primary production.

Sheep farmer Logan Wallace in Gore. Photo / Mike Scott
Sheep farmer Logan Wallace in Gore. Photo / Mike Scott

The employment centre is an initiative of local and regional groups, from mental health to development and tourism agencies. It has about 600 jobs going, from fast food and supermarket work through to accountancy and laboratory technicians.

In the mix, though, are awful lot of jobs on farms. In farming, says Wallace, there were many skilled agricultural contractors from Europe and the United Kingdom who would do seasonal work.

That's the next challenge in a year that has been filled with challenges. Work continued during Covid-19, although the need for social distancing in the supply chain - mainly at the meat works - meant stock were held for longer than they would usually have been.

Thank goodness for a mild autumn, he says. It meant there was still grass for sheep even as the lag grew to four weeks or so. We came out of lockdown just in time.

Otago countryside on the road to Middlemarch. Photo / Mike Scott
Otago countryside on the road to Middlemarch. Photo / Mike Scott

There's persistent, ongoing, pressure from government to resolve water quality issues. Yes, says Wallace, farmers want to make the change. Bureaucrats need to do better listening, though, and stop trying to make one solution work for everyone.

Some changes insisted on by government are actually making water quality worse, he says. Compliance costs could load $5000-$10,000 a year on farmers who - like everyone - are heading for a difficult time.

There's a saying, says Wallace. "You can only be green when you're in the black."

Power to the people

Hell no, says Dunedin energy activist Rosemary Penwarden, 61. There are few times in a society where it is possible to make an abrupt, dramatic, shift. In New Zealand, that time is now.

Penwarden started protesting over energy in 2011 when the birth of her first grandchild sparked an awakening over climate change.

"I was blown away by the way New Zealanders listened to Jacinda and Bloomfield and the scientists - and we did it. Maybe we could do it again."

Take back the electricity networks, she says, and take the profit out of power. If you consider the free market and how we progress from here, it's a case of diminishing returns.

Energy activist Rosemary Penwarden with her electric vehicle conversion - a 1993 Honda City. Photo / Mike Scott
Energy activist Rosemary Penwarden with her electric vehicle conversion - a 1993 Honda City. Photo / Mike Scott

"We need to look at the electricity system as a whole. It's time to nationalise it."

She points to her 1993 Honda City as an example of the way forward. It's been converted to run on electricity and wasn't produced in a high-tech plant with freshly mined and minted materials. It was done, largely, with existing material in The Valley Project's collaborative building in Dunedin's North East Valley.

"We have got to stop bringing in new stuff (from abroad). We've got to stop consuming so much all the time."

There was so much talk of this over lockdown, wasn't there? We spent less, produced less waste, made better use of what we had. And then it finished and we went to the mall.

Also in The Valley Project is Christine Keller, 54, who runs the LoomRoom, teaching people how to weave.

LoomRoom owner and instructor Christine Keller. Photo / Mike Scott
LoomRoom owner and instructor Christine Keller. Photo / Mike Scott

The growth of synthetics and the relative decline in wool is an example of short-term living, she says, She echoes Wallace, the sheep farmer from Gore, who also spoke with enthusiasm about the benefits of wool.

"I think we need to have less things that are more valuable. We have to start re-education - to have the new things is uncool. We need to have the good things.

"The way the economy has been defined the last 20 years is all about the money and not about sustainability and people."

In recent decades the concept of farming and fishing holding New Zealand together has faded for the glamour of our film tourism industries.

Is this a watershed moment? Do we make a change, steady in our reliance on those who grow and harvest?

Back in Bluff ...

We saw her before leaving Bluff, host of one of the country's southern-most election hoardings.

She was 70, in a bright red dressing gown at 10 o'clock in the morning, with a wonderful smile that outshone all the sunshine Bluff never sees in winter.

"I'd do anything for devilment," Robertson says.

When the NZ Herald set out to discover The Road Ahead, we did so against a backdrop of Covid-19 and an upcoming election.

Kaye Robertson knows what Covid-19 meant - isolation for her because "when you live by yourself, nothing's different". For others, she watched out her window, facing South Port and, across the harbour, Tiwai Point, and watched families pass by together.

Kaye Robertson of Bluff, a political mischief maker and fan of devilment. Photo / Mike Scott
Kaye Robertson of Bluff, a political mischief maker and fan of devilment. Photo / Mike Scott

"I've never seen so many people walking. Kids walking with their parents. And people would wave."

Elections, though, are different. Elections are devilment. On Robertson's front lawn is an election hoarding. "You know why it's there?" she asks. "I like it on my lawn."

There's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pictured as she is with all candidates - slightly in front of Dr Liz Craig, a list MP contending for the Invercargill electorate seat vacated by National's Sarah Dowie.

The hoarding is simple, unadorned. In 2017 it was not. "That time," says Robertson, "I put lights around it and had the lights flashing at night."

It may have passed except for the misfortune of NewstalkZB announcer Marcus Lush living locally. Very shortly after the lights began flashing, Lush told his nationwide audience "how he loved coming into Bluff because the signs are lit up".

Well, said Robertson, rolling her eyes, "National was crook". Hoardings on people's front lawns must - apparently - appear as they are, without embellishment. So down came the lights.

That was possibly justice after an earlier election saw a John Key hoarding go up next door.

Robertson: "I thought, 'I'm not looking at that bastard every day', so I got some blue paint and threw it at him."

There were complaints and upset and Robertson sat there of a night and thought, "I'm going to get caught" because, really, who else would be prime suspect.

Under cover of darkness, she loaded the blue paint into a wheelbarrow and scooted across Bluff to hide the evidence at her son's place. Then she went home to bed.

"Then I woke next morning with blue paint on my face," said Robertson, and she shakes with laughter at the hilarity of it.

This year, Robertson has studied the rules on signs closely and asked for one to place inside her house. Scrutiny of rules has her convinced this is exempt from the flashing lights rule.

It sits there now, possibly the southern-most election hoarding. It is festooned with Christmas lights, flashing red. The blue lights sit inside, still in their wrapping,