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Tim Shadbolt

Invercargill – City of ‘hands on tools’ not ‘bums on seats’

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I must confess, I’m no expert on the Electoral Finance Act. In local government we tend to get so caught up on events within our own community that we don’t usually spend a lot of energy on nationwide issues.

I more or less stumbled across this Act in its final reading when I visited Parliament to express my opposition to funding cuts at the local Southern Institute of Technology (SIT). When I was informed that the full page advertisement I’d taken out in defence of our local tertiary education provider could be considered illegal if the Act was passed, I was naturally outraged.

All governments have a tendency to pass unpopular or controversial legislation right on the cusp of Christmas in the hope that the opposition will become bloated on Christmas hams and rich, apathy-inspiring puddings. For those who wish to express opposition, late January and February are vital months.

In my view one of the most offensive aspects of the Electoral Finance Act is that it includes the entire year of an election starting on 1 January. This denies us our right of response. It prevents us from stating quite simply that “this government has really hurt Invercargill, so let’s change the government”.

This may seem a rather naïve response coming from a city the size of two or three Auckland suburbs, and it probably is. Nonetheless I still believe I should have the right to express such a viewpoint without the threat of imprisonment. The government is trying to argue that only extreme right-wing religious groups are opposed to this Act. I’m hoping that my stand will negate this argument.

Like most Kiwis my political viewpoint was strongly influenced by my family. Dad was a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm and Mum was a nurse, and if my Dad hadn’t been killed while training for the Korean War, I may have become a mild conservative. Because he didn’t survive, I was strongly influenced by his three older brothers who had been clubbed down as protesters during the unemployment riots of 1932 and proudly carried their loyalty cards from the 1951 lockout. My Aunt Sis had served with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and my oldest cousin, Maurice Shadbolt, was a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activist and left-wing writer.

As a teenager I simply assumed that all conservatives were rich, selfish materialists and all liberals were kind, humanitarian idealists. The Vietnam War, Springbok tour and Maori land battles seemed to confirm these attitudes. It is only now, having become the longest serving Mayor in New Zealand that’s still in office, and spending my time in one of New Zealand ’s most conservative cities, that I’m realising life is not quite so black and white. It is possible for lefties to be nasty, bigoted, ruthless oppressors and conservatives could be generous and open minded. Reading Solzhenitsyn helped.

You may consider that funding cuts for a small provincial Polytech is hardly an issue upon which to base such a revolutionary political somersault, but for Invercargill education has been a pivotal issue.

For 30 years we were the fastest declining city in New Zealand or Australia . No government delegation turned up on our doorstep claiming ‘this was outrageous and we will save you’. A school review announced that we were dying and half our schools would be closed, but otherwise nothing special was done to help us.

At the end of the day we realised there would be no cavalry and we would have to save ourselves. Marketing, innovation and education became the catch-cry. For eight years I went to Mystery Creek and tried to help sell lush, cheap farmland to rich Waikato cockies. Our aluminium smelter faced up to the threat of Russians dumping cheap aluminium on to world markets after the iron curtain came down. We couldn’t compete for price so we went for quality and achieved 99.98% purity, the purest in the world. You will now find Invercargill aluminium in most of your cellphones, computers and aeroplane wings.

The greatest success we had in reversing our downward population spiral was in the field of education. The zero fees scheme increased the number of full-time students from 1,400 to 5,000 within eight years. The famous Australian writer, Bernard Salt, proclaimed it was the greatest success story regarding population reversal in the western world. Naturally we are opposed to funding cuts. And irony, upon rich, political irony, my greatest opponent is now John Minto, national spokesman for Quality Public Education Coalition (www.qpec.org.nz). His argument is that we are part of the old ‘bums on seats’ regime. Considering the huge increase in civil servants in this country I would claim that this government has put more ‘bums on seats’ than any government in the last 30 years and they are putting some very expensive bums on some lavish seats.

At the Western Institute of Technology in Taranaki (WITT – it pays to be witty) for example, the CEO has done a runner and five administrators are being paid $2,000 a day to run the place. This dysfunctional Polytech will receive an $11.8 million increase in funding. The successful Southern Institute of Technology campus in Christchurch will be given to Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology which you may recall ran a ‘Cool IT’ programme where they gave out CD’s at supermarkets and enrolled 18,493 ‘students’ and claimed $15 million off the taxpayer. The people’s republic of Christchurch will naturally be well rewarded for its wasteful mismanagement.

My next move, in late January, is to publish the full story on SIT and tertiary funding and then add a ‘Vote National’ recommendation at the end. I intend deliberately breaking the Electoral Finance Act and will fight it out in court with help from Mai Chen and Christine French (Rhodes Scholar in Law from Invercargill who represents SIT).

If you can send a small donation to the Mayor’s office for ‘Friends of SIT’, it would be most welcome, or if you want more information there are numerous articles in the Southland Times (available through the Stuff website), or online, www.friendsofsit.co.nz