Southern list MP facing challenging times

Invercargill Labour list MP Liz Craig questions Educations Minister Chris Hipkins in Parliament...
Invercargill Labour list MP Liz Craig questions Educations Minister Chris Hipkins in Parliament last week. Photo: Parliament TV
Former National Prime Minister Keith Holyoake's famous advice that first-term backbench MPs should learn to "breathe through their nose" before trying to make their mark on Parliament has echoed through the ages.

Labour Invercargill list MP Liz Craig has been the embodiment of that advice in her first two years in the House.

While not tearing up trees, she has also made few false steps.

Dr Craig has dutifully put the patsy questions governments require backbenchers to ask of ministers, given sensible speeches, mostly in her specialist areas of health and welfare, and does the required work on the health and environment select committees.

So far so good for the mechanics of politics.

Now Dr Craig faces its more intangible challenge, sensing and adapting to the public mood.

Two defining issues are playing out in her neighbourhood and Dr Craig needs to demonstrate sure footing in negotiating them both.

Up the road in Lumsden, tempers are still at boiling point after the health select committee last week reported back on Clutha Southland National MP Hamish Walker's petition to save the town's birthing unit.

Dr Craig has been intensely lobbied on this issue, both as a committee member and as an MP based nearby who has taken a close interest in the matter.

It is a subject close to her heart, with her extensive professional background in children's health.

With the 4:4 split between Government and National MPs on the committee, she and fellow southern MP Mark Patterson were under extreme pressure from Lumsden locals to back Mr Walker's petition.

They did not - a stance Mr Patterson seems to have taken most of the flak for, despite a strongly worded "New Zealand First view" in the final report which labelled the Southern District Health Board's work "shambolic".

Labour's view, which Dr Craig will have played a major part in crafting, was carefully constructed.

While not going anywhere near as far as some might have liked, this was not a weak-kneed response.

It emphasised that Northern Southland women should expect safe, high-quality maternity care and placed the onus on the SDHB to ensure such care was available at all times.

The health board was also placed on notice it should return before the committee and report on its progress, and in passing it received a warning shot over the bows that its handling of maternity issues at Wanaka was also being watched.

The future of the Southern Institute of Technology is another fraught local issue, and one with much at stake.

Invercargill's Labour faithful were greatly encouraged by Dr Craig's 2017 election performance, where she sliced 2500 off National rival Sarah Dowie's majority and boosted Labour's party vote by 10%.

However, those gains stand to be lost in the wake of the Government's polytechnic reforms.

SIT has fought tooth and nail against Education Minister Chris Hipkins' reforms, and Ms Dowie has been delighted to champion its cause: her Facebook profile background at the moment is a tombstone claiming SIT was murdered by a Labour/NZ First/Green government.

Dr Craig finds herself stuck between the need to back her party line and the requirement of facing a community which is full square against it ... and ask for their vote.

Labour clearly knew this was coming, so took the precaution of having Dr Craig ask Mr Hipkins in Parliament to confirm that SIT "will be able to continue to innovate to meet the needs of their students in regions".

However, the minister's assurance that would be the case, and that polytechnic cash reserves would be reinvested back in to their local communities, has done little to assuage southerners.

Hence Dr Craig this week organised a meeting of local mayors to discuss the reforms, and offered to co-ordinate a Southland delegation visit to see Mr Hipkins in Wellington.

If that goes ahead, Dr Craig will have to somehow look like she is fighting her constituents' corner, but at the same time not bucking the party whip - which will be quite a challenge.

Dr Craig assured Southland Express readers this week that she was doing all she could to ensure the best outcome for Southland.

In about a year's time, they will deliver an electoral verdict on her performance on that score.

What, already?

Just as Christmas decorations seem to go up earlier each year, election campaigns also seem to start sooner.

National announced this week that candidate selection is now under way for the 2020 election; some of those elected to Parliament in 2017 have only just figured out how to get around the building without becoming lost.

Late, not lamented

Dunedin South MP Clare Curran bade a heartfelt farewell to the Whaleoil blog last week.

The site has now been bought by Matt Blomfield, who won a defamation suit against former owner Cameron Slater earlier this year.

"Whaleoil wrote 135 ugly posts about me last year," Ms Curran said on Twitter.

"That man wrote so much pain, ugliness and untruths affected so many over so many years."

More social media meanness

A thread on Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie's Facebook page about the whitebait fishery took an unexpected and unwelcome turn, as one poster launched into a nasty and utterly unwarranted attack on the MP's personal life.

Ms Dowie made a dignified reply, when simply deleting the comment would have been most people's reaction.

But coming in a week when a local body election candidate withdrew from the race due to vicious social media comments it is an unsavoury reminder that the contest of ideas is a contact sport in some people's eyes.

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