The past not such a foreign country

The Otago branch of the PSA marched in 1987 against the introduction of the State Sector Bill....
The Otago branch of the PSA marched in 1987 against the introduction of the State Sector Bill. Photo: Michael Thomas
Dene Mackenzie, the Otago Daily Times business and political editor, is retiring next week after 31 years at the newspaper. Sifting through his clippings collection, he finds — to no surprise — some things never change.

In September 1987, David Lange was leading his second Labour government in which Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble were prominent players.

Interest rates were skyrocketing, businesses were feeling the pinch. One of the first stories written in that month with a vaguely business feel concerned the news that up to half  the 85 workers at Speight’s Brewery, in Dunedin, would possibly lose their jobs following a New Zealand Breweries decision to scale down operations the following year.

Thirty years later, the brewery is still in Dunedin but the number of people employed there is a mere handful compared with when it was operating at full tilt.

Industrial action was starting to ramp up under a Labour government, similar to what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led Coalition Government is facing at present.

Public service jobs were among the first to go from the Otago-Southland region.  The former Ministry of Works and Development cut 92 jobs from the region and there were nearly 1100 job losses nationwide.

On the same day the job losses were announced, then parliamentary commissioner for the Environment Helen Hughes was arguing against the introduction of the pest-control disease myxomatosis in favour of greater taxpayer funding for rabbit-prone areas.

Farmers were outraged by the opposition to myxomatosis, despite then agriculture minister Colin Moyle welcoming the report. Myxomatosis was eventually introduced illegally into Otago. Similarly, a debate is continuing at present between farmers and the Otago Regional Council regarding the effectiveness of the latest rabbit-killing disease.

The Otago Harbour Board, the predecessor of Port Otago, was then one of the drivers of economic growth in the region, just as it is today. The board had overseen the installation of a container wharf at Port Chalmers but was still dredging the upper harbour, which was receiving cargo ships on a regular basis.

After staff were laid off at Speight’s Brewery in 1987 there was concern the brewery would...
After staff were laid off at Speight’s Brewery in 1987 there was concern the brewery would eventually close. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The upper harbour was busy with fishing trawlers unloading for Sealord. Russian ships were regular callers in the port and the Otago Daily Times was often invited on board to drink vodka with ship captains sporting metal teeth.

The harbour board’s main assets were eventually given to the Otago Regional Council, despite opposition from some Dunedin representatives, including the late Michael Haggitt and Richard Walls. Dunedin Airport was to receive a $1 million upgrade from Air New Zealand as the national carrier invested in facilities for its customers and the airline was promising better services between Dunedin and  Auckland, to allow business people a full eight hours of business time in New Zealand’s largest city. Even today, business people continue to discuss how flights could be changed or added with the airline. Forestry and timber have long played a part in the economic growth of the region. As far back as September 1987, jobs were being lost and created as changes were  made to how timber was exported from the region.

The Barrow Box sawmill, in Tapanui, was one of the first casualties when it was put up for sale by its owner, Tasman Lumber, part of the Fletcher Group.

Am ambitious plan developed for a wood processing plant in Allanton was shelved. A wood processing plant, Radiata Components, operated on the Taieri before being replaced with New Zealand Mouldings. Wood processing was a difficult industry to develop in the city.

Former Donaghys managing director Graeme Marsh expressed his frustration to the Otago Daily Times at seeing how many logs were transported past his office in Crawford St, when they could be processed in the city.

In November, the harbour board announced a plan to develop a $10.1 million forestry and multipurpose berth at Port Chalmers with the expectation of the timber trade through the port doubling by 1991. Logs continue to be exported out of Port Chalmers in increasingly higher numbers, although some further processing does happen in the region.

First the Otago Harbour Board and, latterly, Port Otago has helped drive economic growth in the...
First the Otago Harbour Board and, latterly, Port Otago has helped drive economic growth in the region. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
The concern at the time was when cruise ships berthed in Port Chalmers, work on log loading had to stop because there was not enough room for both ships.

By 1989, Port Otago, as it was now known, announced the building of a multipurpose berth which would allow two container ships to be worked at the same time. The berth, built at Port Chalmers, cost $14 million.

The late 1980s were not easy for Dunedin. The city lost 21 firemen near the end of 1987 and unionised truck drivers were disrupting freight deliveries as they fought to receive a "fair wage" of $8 an hour.

By November, some retailers were being forced to strike and Otago hospitals were hit by a strike. On one day, drivers, builder labourers and hospital staff were all on strike. This year, nurses drove a hard bargain to get a pay rise. Now, catering is carried out by outside contractors. Volunteers manned the hospital kitchens back in 1987.

It is a strange test for any Labour government when its biggest supporters go on strike. In the late 1980s, Rogernomics was in full flight, as Mr Lange had not yet called for his "cup of tea" pause. So-called traditional jobs had disappeared. The Abbotsford branch of New Zealand Brickmakers was closed two days before Christmas 1987 and 28 workers lost their jobs.

Hotel and supermarket workers were going on strike and boilermakers were voting to go out over wage claims.

The term "union bashing", usually associated with a National-led administration, was being used widely.

Drivers in 1988 were striking for a better rate of pay. Photo: Dave Swan
Drivers in 1988 were striking for a better rate of pay. Photo: Dave Swan

The PSA led marches to the offices of former Dunedin North MP Stan Rodger, then the minister of state services. The regional PSA secretary Ian Campbell said the march of up to 1600 people was the largest crowd of PSA members  ever to be assembled in Dunedin.

The union wanted the withdrawal of Mr Rodger’s State Sector Bill. Little did the union know but three years later Sir William Birch would introduce some of the most sweeping labour reforms New Zealand had ever seen.

Watersiders were calling in sick because of the stress they were under with the reform of the waterfront. The reforms went through, making for a much more efficient service from Port Chalmers. In the changes, however, hundreds of Dunedin and Port Chalmers workers lost their jobs.

The removal of tariffs from imported clothing caused major concern in the city. Former MP Clive Matthewson, part of the Labour government, agreed to take the concerns of Dunedin textile and garment manufacturers had over the influx of Fijian clothing imports back to his Labour colleagues.

Leading clothing manufacturer, Alan Gamble, of Tamahine, led a protest march of workers and manufacturers around the Octagon, protesting  the removal of tariffs.

But to no avail. Dunedin’s once thriving bulk clothing manufacturing industries disappeared to be replaced 20 years later by niche manufacturers.

My mid-1989, unemployment in Otago had reached 10,000 and predictions were for it to get worse.

Bill Smith, the late chief executive of the Otago-Southland Employers Association, started calling for every employer to take on one extra staff member to  alleviate  job losses in the wider region.

Skilled staff were leaving for jobs in Australia, contributing to a skills shortage in construction, something the country continues to face as the construction boom falters because of a lack of workers.

Then, as now, the Dunedin City Council’s economic development unit was facing criticism for its lack of action in either retaining or creating jobs.

Rates relief, or incentives to relocate, were being offered for businesses to relocate. Some of that money disappeared when the recipients closed up or shifted.

Dunedin has a bright future, not from large-scale manufacturing but from talented people bringing new ideas to the market and building on them.

The city could do no better than support these entrepreneurs to the hilt.

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