05 June 2015

Southland needs to sell itself better - Bill English

The Southland Times

Southland needs to sell itself better as a region if it wants people to move south - starting with perceptions of the dairy industry, Finance Minister Bill English says.

English was in Invercargill to give a post Budget address at a function attended by about 70 people on Thursday night at the Ascot Park Hotel. He told those gathered that Southland had done a great job in the 1990s of marketing itself and creating a positive perception around the region as an an attractive place to move to.

Southland needed to “reignite that positivity” and ward off an increasingly negative narrative around the dairy industry. Southland was one of several regions which was doing pretty well with low unemployment and had a more resilient economy than some made out.

English said he was worried the slump in dairy prices would contribute to a negative perception of Southland - and did his best to convince the audience that the industry, which contributes nearly 20 per cent of the country’s exports, was in good heart in the long term and that there was more to the economy than milk.

“We are not quite as dependent on dairy as people think.”

He said New Zealand was only half as dependent on milk as Australia was on iron-ore. He acknowledged that the next 18 months to two years would be a “grind”, milk production could drop and farmers’ chequebooks would be closed, but despite this the New Zealand economy was still growing.

The Government shared Fonterra’s fundamental optimism that long term demand for protein would underpin the dairy industry’s strong position, English said.

He said people looked sideways at him when he said the closer to Invercargill you were, the more likely it was that you would have a job, but it was true as Southland’s unemployment was at about 4 per cent, while it sat at 6 per cent in Auckland.

After his address, English was questioned about how best to drive population growth in the south. A balance between bringing in immigrant labour and attracting local labour to jobs was needed, he said.

The government was interested in “carve outs” from national policies to meet the specific needs of regions, such as in the immigration area for Southland, English said.

He said the Budget announcement which will give families on benefits with children a $25-a-week boost to their incomes, while-low income working families will get at least $12.50 a week extra was designed to deal with the real hardship which existed in New Zealand.

“I think basically that’s the New Zealand version of fairness.”

However, there was a bigger gap now between wages and benefits making it more attractive to find work. The government’s “customers” - those on welfare - were being tracked a lot closer and the government knew a lot more about them, meaning it could do more to try and turn around long-term benefit dependency, he said.

The event was organised by the Southland Chamber of Commerce.