Oamaru celebrates 150 years

Oamaru is in party mode, with celebrations in full swing this week to mark the town's 150th anniversary.

A variety of events have been organised by artist Donna Demente, who was inspired to mark the occasion after witnessing this year's Arrowtown 150th celebrations.

Oamaru has a rich history - built on gold, wool, wheat and meat which has left its 12,600 residents a lasting legacy - as well a wealth of new attractions today. In the late 1800s Oamaru flourished and became a major port town.

Totara Estate supplied the first shipment of frozen meat to Britain on the ship Dunedin in 1882, making it the birthplace of New Zealand's billion-dollar frozen meat industry.

The area's early wealth and plentiful limestone contributed to some of the country's best 19th-century architecture, including the Bank of New South Wales building, now the Forrester Gallery.

Other significant buildings include the newly renovated Opera House and the North Otago Museum.

The buildings of the town's Victorian Precinct house numerous artisans and craftspeople, making and selling everything from whisky to stone and iron sculptures and penny-farthings.

The precinct also houses the headquarters of the quirky Steampunk movement, a nod to the past which has helped put the town firmly on the visitor map today, as have the annual week-long Victorian heritage celebrations.

The Oamaru Public Gardens, which opened in 1876, are rated Gardens of Regional Significance by the New Zealand Gardens Trust.

The area is home to natural wonders including limestone formations and the Moeraki boulders and rare wildlife such as yellow-eyed penguins, little blue penguins and fur seals. It has Maori rock art, good fishing, is close to skifields, and hydro lakes, and will be the finishing point for the nearly completed Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail from Aoraki/Mount Cook.

The area is also home to award-winning foodies - Fleur Sullivan, who has two restaurants in the area which attract an international clientele, Riverstone Kitchen, which has been named Cuisine magazine's Restaurant of the Year, and grows much of its own food and showcases other local produce, and cheesemaker Whitestone. It has a rich literary and artistic history, with the likes of authors Janet Frame, Owen Marshall and Fiona Farrell, poet Charles Brasch, composer Douglas Lilburn and Colin McCahon growing up, educated or working there.

The North Otago town has a lot to put it on the map, and its determination to capitalise on its heritage - through the determination and dedication of community stalwarts - is ensuring it continues to have a vibrant present and future.

Its founding fathers would surely be proud.

And another thing

Education Minister Hekia Parata is once again in the hot seat, following the release this week of a report by Ombudsman David McGee, which criticised the Ministry of Education for its handling of requests for information about Christchurch school closures. In the light of the findings, the Office is planning an investigation into the ministry's disclosure processes, which could be extended further into other departments.

The findings follow the admission by Ms Parata in October that data used by the Ministry of Education to determine the fate of the region's schools was flawed. That followed claims the consultation for the proposals, announced in September, had not been genuine and decisions were predetermined.

Ms Parata was vague about who she consulted before she made the announcement, which was itself a debacle, with many affected staff hearing about the proposals from the media.

The handling of other controversial issues, such as class sizes, closure of special schools and the ongoing Novopay computer pay system debacle, have taken their toll on school staff, board members, parents and pupils alike, and claimed the scalp of Secretary for Education and chief executive Lesley Longstone, who resigned yesterday.

Ms Parata's ability to adequately manage her important ministry portfolio is increasingly questionable and her next moves - and what action Prime Minister John Key may take - are now under even more intense scrutiny.