Fresh approach needed to grow NZ's regions

The sign above the Immigration New Zealand offices in Bond Street, Dunedin. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
The sign above the Immigration New Zealand offices in Bond Street, Dunedin. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
With the loss of further Government services from Dunedin, Labour's Economic Development spokesman David Clark asks how long the Government can ignore economic evidence without facing a backlash.

I despaired to read of the Government's latest thoughtless centralisation decision. Just one cynical week before Christmas, the Government has given final notice it will close the Dunedin immigration office.

The drawn-out decision was postponed during election year, for reasons yet to be explained.

As a local MP, I am frequently frustrated at the loss of solid middle-income jobs in a city hard-hit by the Government's centralisation agenda.

But that is not what this article is about.

What most bothers me is the complete absence of any compelling business case for this closure.

This is not just a local jobs story. Closing the office is economic vandalism.

Information previously available on the immigration website showed the Dunedin office was the most efficient and cost-effective in the country.

Notably, this information was removed about the time the proposed closure first hit the headlines.

Like many Dunedin offices, our immigration office is staffed by a skilled and highly qualified workforce. Overheads tend to be lower here and staff turnover is low, too. With a Protestant work ethic and a surfeit of academic qualifications, it is little wonder that Dunedin offices generally compare well on productivity measures to other branch offices around the country.

Immigration insiders acknowledged that the Christchurch immigration office was less happy and productive than the Dunedin office, long before the quakes. Yet, that is where any transferring workers will probably end up.

But I suspect productivity and the economy is not behind this shift. A ''centralise at all costs'' ideology is at play.

Why shift workers lucky enough to get a transfer from a low-cost, highly productive work-centre, to one less productive and beset by challenges?

It makes no sense.

It was the same story with Invermay. Internal reports showed that New Zealand's export returns would be put at risk if the plan to shift animal genetics scientists to Lincoln went ahead in 2017.

Despite warnings from independent experts, AgResearch is pushing ahead with its plan and a winning team that has contributed to a doubling of New Zealand's sheep productivity is starting to unravel.

The irony in recent decisions to gut Invermay, to shift government offices north, and to reduce real funding to the Southern DHB is that these decisions all come at a cost to the taxpayer.

A less productive agriculture sector, less efficient bureaucracy and less-healthy workforce all carry real costs. Despite all of this, taxpayers in regional New Zealand continue to pay their taxes.

Otago taxpayers are right to ask what they are getting in return for their investment.

There have been no Roads of National Significance south of Christchurch. Social services have faced funding cuts.

And the Government has been slow to commit to upgrading Dunedin Hospital.

This Government needs to be challenged on its thinking. Cutting costs is laudable, but not when it comes at the expense of economic prosperity.

We must invest in our future if we wish to enjoy life in a country of relative wealth.

Economics is far from a perfect science, but more and more evidence is pointing to economic opportunities lying in the regions.

Even the conservative OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) says that is where the wins for wealthy nations lie.

The evidence is mounting. We need to act on it.

Again, on wealth disparities the OECD's advice is salutary.

Its December report on the effect of inequalities on growth predicted New Zealand's economy would be 15.5% larger were it not for the growth in inequalities in this country since 1990.

New Zealand's overall economic growth has been held back more than other Western countries because the growth in inequalities has been more rapid here.

Looking back and blaming past governments for inequalities is fruitless. The problem is real and it is here now.

As a country, we must take heed of the growing body of evidence pointing to the benefits of a more equal society. Sticking our heads in the sand and pretending inequalities are not here helps no-one.

The question must be asked: how long will this Government pursue its dated ideological agendas without facing a backlash?

Economists say we should grow our regions and create a fairer society.

More and more, the evidence supports the need for a fresh approach.

 -Dr Clark is also Dunedin North MP.

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