Some people in Kaikohe might not agree, but David Fisher is a very, very good journalist.
And The desolation of Kaikohe, published in the NZ Herald last month, was David Fisher at his finest.

He was expecting a negative response from Kaikohe, and he got one. Two of those responses have been published in this newspaper (A town that will not lie down, January 3, and What makes a community? January 8).

In the first, Shaun Riley scorns Fisher as a "scribe bent on creating a sensational headline following a cursory inspection," while in the second John Coleman examines the origins of the town's woes, as indeed did Fisher.

It is a sad story of decline, hardly unique in small town New Zealand, but more spectacular in Kaikohe's case than many others.


One thing everyone agrees on is that it began with the 'Rogernomics' reforms of the 1980s, reforms that were clearly necessary, but brutal. David Lange, the Prime Minister who oversaw the beginning of the reforms, recognised that, but by then it was too late.

The process had gathered unstoppable momentum, and the fate of many small towns was sealed.

What those who laid the foundations for the economy we have now didn't realise is that small town New Zealand marches to the beat of a very different drum to that heard in the main centres. It was true 35 years ago, and it is still true today.

Those who live in small towns will say that they have different values than their big smoke counterparts. And they do. They measure success in different ways — they value the intangibles, and the relationships that make a community tick, and more importantly hold it together.

Those who enjoy wealth tend not to wear it, drive it or display it in other ostentatious ways. They see themselves as part of a community, rather than as individuals engaged in a struggle where the winner takes all.

The problem is, they don't make the big decisions, or even the little ones. Those decisions, political and corporate, are made in Wellington and Auckland, by people who seemingly have no understanding of small towns. People who believe that if it works in Wellington or Auckland, it will work everywhere.

People, in particular politicians, who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, and who all too often blame the results of their decisions on their victims.

Thus small towns are responsible for their staggering rates of unemployment, poor health, educational under-achievement, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, violence — everything negative you can think of.


The days when the provinces had a real influence on politics and big business, often because those involved were themselves from the provinces, and understood how life worked there, have long gone. There are now two New Zealands, with very little in common. And the once-porous barrier between them is becoming concrete.

Some still escape the provinces, by virtue of their ambition and education, but many of those living in small, beleaguered towns like Kaikohe never will. They are effectively barred from what most New Zealanders see as the good life, the birthright of every one of us, before they are born.

The lack of understanding is exemplified by the response from some quarters, particularly the media, to the current government's Provincial Growth Fund.

Minister Shane Jones is regularly derided for his choice of recipients, but those who have been ignored by governments, and even the MPs they have elected, over the last 35 years see it differently.

So what if Mr Jones' beneficence doesn't always create huge numbers of jobs? The fact that the government is prepared to invest taxpayers' money in some of this country's forgotten corners is, if nothing else, a sign that Wellington has remembered that they exist. And a few million here and a few million there is small beer compared to what we see being spent in other, wealthier communities with more voters.

The lack of understanding is also seen in the imposition of taxes and levies on people who genuinely cannot afford to pay them.


A few more dollars to register a car, or to fill it with petrol, might be a source of annoyance in Auckland; in some parts it is calamitous.

Many people who have no choice but to own and operate a car to survive balance their household finances in cents. If they don't register their car because they can't afford to, they run the risk of being pinged with fines they can't pay every time they use it.

Years ago, when the Far North District Council's parking wardens began ticketing cars without regos or warrants of fitness, some rural folk, who had no choice but to drive to Kaitaia for groceries, took to parking well outside the town and walking the last few kilometres. You can bet your bottom dollar, pun intended, that no one in Wellington picked up on that.

Kaikohe, meanwhile, is a case study of what happens when the government walks away from a community, initiating a vicious cycle that not so gradually erodes its ability to survive, let alone prosper.

Perhaps the result of that has been harsher in Kaikohe than in many other small towns, in part thanks to geography.

Kaikohe might regard itself as the capital of Ngāpuhi, but it is off the main road. And while there are still farms and other enterprises to service, customers have other options.


Unlike Kaitaia, Kaikohe isn't remote enough. It is too close to Kerikeri for its own good. It is well down the road to becoming commercially irrelevant.

Remoteness is not always a bad thing. It has served Kaitaia well on occasion. It is remoteness, for example, that largely gets the credit for the fact that it still has a hospital. If it was closer to Whangārei it would not.

(Years ago, a representative of the late, unlamented North Health had to drive from Auckland to a meeting in Kaitaia, a storm having closed Kerikeri airport. She arrived ashen-faced, full of the terrors of negotiating the Mangamuka Gorge on a dark, wet and windy night. That experience did not, however, change her view that Kaitaia did not need a hospital).

The town finally won that battle, sort of. It lost some of its hospital services, but not all of them. And now, years later, the Northland DHB has actually begun decentralising, in a very small way. Hopefully that will continue.

The battle over its hospital, which raged for seven years, did a great deal to bring Kaitaia together. David Fisher might have done the same favour, albeit on a much smaller scale, for Kaikohe. He never doubted that his article would inspire a spirited response, but it will quickly fade unless those who can begin repairing the damage take heed.

We did not need to be told that there are plenty of good people doing good things in Kaikohe. The town is unlikely to ever return to the halcyon days of its prosperous past, but it has clearly not lost its spirit entirely, even if its champions tend to look more to the past than the future.


A lost cause it might not be, but Kaikohe will need influential friends if it is going to pull itself up off the canvas. Its defenders need reinforcements, and a whole new attitude in Wellington and corporate boardrooms regarding what is important, and fair.