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Government’s mega polytech in turmoil

July 08, 2022 Share

Chris Hipkins needs to front up and explain what is going on at the Government’s mega polytech, Te Pūkenga, National’s Tertiary Education spokesperson Penny Simmonds says.

Staff were told today that Te Pūkenga Chief Executive Stephen Town is taking a leave of absence for personal reasons.

This comes two weeks after the Tertiary Education Union launched a petition calling on the Chief Executive to give his staff more time to develop a curriculum that is fit for purpose.

“The petition states staff are opposed to the pressure being put on them to implement an entirely new curriculum in just a few months.  

“It goes on to say ‘This is an unreasonable request on exhausted staff and risks poor outcomes. Staff need more time for consultation, and to ensure consistency and quality.  Staff are committed to great student experience and well-prepared graduates.  For new curricula to be fit for purpose, staff must be listened to.’   

“Chris Hipkins was warned by the sector that his centralised model wasn’t going to deliver better educational outcomes and be more financially viable but he pushed ahead with it anyway.  Now the vocational sector is in disarray,” says Simmonds.

“The Government needs to stop wasting taxpayers’ money on Chris Hipkins’ ideological dream which is producing worse outcomes for our young people, and instead focus on creating a more effective funding system that supports vocational education.

“Chris Hipkins also needs to explain how many regional jobs are expected to be cut after representatives in the industry were told as many as 600 jobs would be going from September.

“In the 16 months since Te Pūkenga was established, we now have a CE on leave, staff rallying against course content being rushed through, rumours of hundreds of job cuts and, to add insult to injury, Te Pūkenga is expected to make a loss of $110 million in its third year of transition. 

“That is more than the $48 million deficit posted by the 16 Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics before the merger, that created Te Pūkenga at a cost of $200 million.

“In response to a recent Tertiary Education Commission report, Chris Hipkins asked to see a plan for some early wins, and expressed concern around financial sustainability asking what Te Pūkenga is doing to trim costs in response to lower enrolments.”

Budget fails to help struggling Southlanders - Southland Express column

June 20, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in the Southland Express

The Government missed an opportunity, with Budget 2022, to help Southlanders struggling to make ends meet.

In fact, the budget was an insult to the hard-working people of this province, with its lack of direction, and misguided spending, doing little to dig us out of the economic doldrums.

I'm genuinely concerned about what the coming months will hold for Southland families as they continue to fall backwards.

Our country is experiencing the worst cost of living crisis in a generation. Inflation is at a 30-year-high and wages aren't keeping up.

Mortgage costs have increased because of rising interest rates, rent is up $140 per week, food price inflation is the highest in a decade, and petrol is up over $3 per litre.

I've heard of local people trading their cars to buy cheaper running vehicles, because of fuel costs, and families cutting back on groceries because prices are too high.

This is not the way of life that we aspire to in Southland.

Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank Governor confirmed last week, that the very high level of Government spending is putting upward pressure on inflation.

Budget 2022, which included a record $9.5 billion in new annual spending the largest increase in New Zealand's history by far, looks increasingly reckless in light of Adrian Orrs' statement.

New Zealand needs a Government with financial discipline. One that cares how every dollar is spent and not one that is driving a province like Southland backwards

Government must fix mud-ridden Rakiura Track

June 02, 2022 Share

It's up to the Government to get on and fix Stewart Island's deteriorating Rakiura track, after the Department of Conservation recently asked the local community for support to repair it, Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says.

"I have contacted Conservation Minister Kiri Allan highlighting track conditions on the island and have asked her to make maintenance a priority.

"Talk of mud and visitor complaints about track quality are just not good enough, especially for a so-called Great Walk premier track, and I'm shocked that DOC and the Government have allowed these issues to persist.

"However, there's now no excuse with the Government announcing $60 million in new DOC funding to 'maintain high quality visitor assets,' including tracks and huts, in its Budget 2022.

"At a time when we're welcoming back international visitors, and the people of Stewart Island are relying on tourism to boost the local economy, I think it is inexcusable that we have a Government managed asset like this that is being run down.

"And how miserable for DOC staff to have to go cap in hand to the local community for help, wanting to access $425,000 from the island's recently-increased visitor levy fund, to fix its track - rather than getting support from Wellington.

"To that end, I have written to the Minister of Conservation highlighting this issue and requesting that maintenance funding for this track be made a priority."

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Cost of living crisis affecting mothers - Southland Express column

May 30, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in the Southland Express

Mums always try to do the best for their families, but as we approach Mother’s Day on Sunday (8/5) the current cost of living crisis is putting many under pressure.

A recent Westpac survey, looking at inflation, showed that one third of households feared they couldn’t cope financially, with groceries, petrol and household bills a major concern.

Significantly, the burden of this financial worry often falls on women, with 53 percent of female respondents extremely concerned about rising living costs, as opposed to 39 percent of men.

I meet these women around Invercargill and Southland - they are hardworking, kind and thoughtful.

Many of them, particularly mothers, handle the finances for the family, do the groceries, fuel the car, and carry the burden of worrying about rising costs.
It’s hard to hear that your money is worth less, when you have very little in the first place.

And it’s these mums who often make sacrifices - eating less dinner so their kids have more, sacrificing their clothes so the children have shoes, waiting longer for a haircut, missing a dental appointment, or doing an extra shift at work to make ends meet.

As we approach Mothers’ Day on Sunday, I want to acknowledge everything that these brave women do in tough financial times.

I’d also like to ask Finance Minister Grant Robertson to consider the sacrifice and worry that he expects mothers to cope with, while his Government continues to ignore the current cost of living crisis. 

Immigration delays hit South - Whats on Invers column

May 16, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in Whats on Invers

Government delays in opening our borders is having a negative impact on Southland’s economy.

Southland’s small and medium-sized businesses are desperate for staff, with Omicron absences forcing many to temporarily close, or operate on reduced hours.

This has impacted financially and created much uncertainty, with a recent RetailNZ survey showing more than a third of small businesses fear they won’t survive the year.

Large businesses like the Alliance Group have also been hit with staff shortages forcing big financial losses, while the Government’s been unable to get immigrant meat workers into the country on time.

Nationwide the meat industry is short around 2000 workers – the Government last week decided to allow just 500 overseas workers into NZ. 

The dairy sector is also desperate for more staff, but again the Government has again failed to deliver with border-class exemptions only filling one third of industry requirements.

Staff shortages have also hit our local hospital, another disaster which could have been averted had the Government acted more quickly in allowing overseas trained nurses here, while our aged-care sector, also experiencing a chronic workforce shortage, could have benefitted from overseas staff.

Overall the Government’s border exceptions have proved inefficient, with many allocations not bringing in the numbers promised, due to the overly bureaucratic process.

National is calling on the Immigration Minister to bring forward the employer accredited work visa scheme, allowing all sectors access to the skilled workers they need and giving local economies like Southland’s a boost.

Government fails to invest in the South - Southland Express column

May 09, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in the Southland Express

It’s easy at times to feel that the South has been forgotten by this Government.

There are many examples, including massive cuts to our road funding last year with ratepayers funding the shortfall, we’ve lost local control of the Southern Institute of Technology and its substantial reserves, there are massive hospital waiting lists and we lack  a decent sized hospital.

Most recently, when farmers asked for help with drought the Government responded with a disappointing $100,000 in support. 

Contrast that with the frightening list of excessive spending that this Government has undertaken and it’s obvious that they’ve got their priorities wrong.

Wasteful spending includes $24 million on Kainga Ora's office renovations, $100 million on Te Huia train, $35 million on consultants for ‘Let's Get Wellington Moving,’ $1.8 billion annually on more public servants, $50 million for design work on the cancelled cycle bridge and almost $1 billion going into the Three Waters asset grab.

Imagine the good that $3 billion could have done not just in Southland, but right across the country, for cancer patients, to cut hospital waiting lists, to better support small business growth, for more teachers and nurses - not to mention the Southland farmers who are currently finding it tough.

I find it incredibly frustrating that our province contributes so much to this country’s economy and yet continually fails to receive recognition from this Government in return.

We are here. We pay our way. We have a voice and we need to be heard.

ITP Sector Deficit Doubles Since Govt Mega-merger

May 06, 2022 Share

The Government’s much-lauded polytechnic mega-merger is failing to deliver on its promised financial efficiencies, National’s Tertiary Education spokesperson Penny Simmonds says.

“The 2022 net financial deficit forecast for Te Pūkenga during its third year of transition is $110 million. That is more than double the $48 million deficit posted by the country’s ITP sector at the end of 2019 - prior to the reforms.

“This is a horrendous waste of taxpayers’ money and it reinforces National’s concerns that the Labour Government’s plans to merge the Polytechnic sector together would not address the financial viability issues.

“In a 2019 cabinet paper, Education Minister Chris Hipkins claimed that these reforms would ‘address the ITP sector’s current financial issues.’

“But instead, what we have seen is $120 million in spending, huge increases in bureaucracy and 149 new bureaucrats added at head office on top of a $110 million deficit forecast.

“There’s been a total lack of accountability and the Tertiary Education Commission has expressed concern to the Minister that Te Pūkenga is not meeting the expectations 'to improve efficiency and effectiveness'.

“We have already heard concerns from the Auditor General that Te Pūkenga is not addressing the underlying problems around the financial viability of its network.

“This is clear evidence that Labour’s attempts to restructure New Zealand’s polytechnics and technical institutes are failing.”

Western Star Column April 2022

May 02, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in the Western Star

I enjoyed a great visit to Western Southland recently, where I got to hear first-hand some of the issues that are affecting local people.

Naturally the cost of living is a big one with groceries, particularly fruit and vegetables, increasing dramatically. Thanks heavens for some of the locally grown produce to keep us all going.

Fuel prices are another major concern with people in rural areas like Riverton, Colac Bay, Orepuki and Tuatapere, having no choice but to use their farm vehicles and cars to keep their businesses and families running.

Despite what the Government says, we are dealing with a cost of living crisis - annual inflation is sitting at 5.9% and wage growth at only 2.6% - that means people in this province are worse off now than they were 12 months ago.

During my visit I also noticed how dry Western Southland farms were looking and I made a call to Government last week to declare a drought and acknowledge the trying conditions.

The Government responded by allocating $100,000 to support farmers, covering the whole Queenstown Lakes, Southland and South Otago districts.

This funding is expected to last until October and averages about $1000 per week, per province. 

It’s a pittance when you think of the contribution that the rural sector and the South makes to New Zealand’s economy and it’s just another example that this Government doesn’t understand or value the people of the South.

Southland Times column March 2022

April 25, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in The Southland Times

Southern people caring for family members who have health conditions, disabilities, or need palliative support,have been severely impacted by Covid-19.

Not just in Southland, but across the country, this is a significant group with at least a million New Zealanders providing care for someone in their family and for many it is a seven day a week role.

Despite their work having an estimated annual economic value of at least $10 million, these carers work quietly behind the scenes. They support and care for family members, are unpaid and often have limited opportunities for time off.

However, since Covid many of the opportunities to take a break have all but disappeared, with workforce shortages and the restrictions of Omicron severely impacting them.

As National’s Disability spokesperson I’ve been working hard to achieve improvements for carers and to get a commitment from Government on the provision for extra support.

Respite care payments are a major stumbling block. They are capped at $80 a day, after a disappointing $5 increase from Government last year. They fall well below the minimum wage and make it virtually impossible for carers to attract people to these roles, unless they top up the funding themselves.   

In November I asked Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni about these limited payments and whether there could be increases.

Despite being the Minister for Disablity Issues, Ms Sepuloni was unable to address my questions because she said she did not have “any responsibility for the funding for respite care.” She instead directed my questions to the Minister of Health.

However, when I asked Andrew Little he said he was “not familiar with the arrangements for respite care.” 

This lack of understanding from both Minister’s is quite alarming and is an affront to the many committed and selfless people across Southland, and the rest of the country, who provide this care and support.

It also makes a mockery of the stress that many families are under and only serves to undermine any hope those with sick, or disabled dependents might have that this Government is ready to address their concerns.

Significantly a recent survey by Carers NZ, which included responses from 650 people, found that Covid and Omicron had made it even harder for family carers to have breaks from their role.

A huge 90 percent of respondents said that they had less, or much less, respite from caring since before the pandemic.

Reasons included disrupted respite services, worker shortages, and doing more directly for friends and family to reduce the risk of virus exposure from workers coming into their homes.

There were also many comments from carers who said access to less respite had affected their wellbeing.

These are sobering revelations and make me question how long these family members can sustain this relentless support work before they become sick themselves.

It also sends a clear signal to Government that more help is needed for the carers in our community – we cannot ignore their plight because we simply cannot do without them.

It's Time to Return to Normal - Whats on Invers column

April 25, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in Whats on Invers

There’s no doubt that the past couple of years have been tough for Southlanders.

From postponed weddings, to funerals where the numbers were limited, cancelled school and community events and business owners under financial pressure.

Local people have done the right thing for a long time – but I now believe it’s time to return to normality.

I would like to see the Government immediately drop all scanning requirements for businesses, scrap vaccine passes for all but large indoor events, get rid of all vaccine mandates for young people aged under-18 and move to a five-day isolation period.

As we come through the peak of Omicron, it’s time to phase out restrictions and allow people to get back to normal.

This is particularly important for local businesses, who have often borne the brunt of restrictions.

The public health rationale for vaccine passes just isn’t there anymore, the time has passed and they are now putting unjustified limits on people’s rights.

The mandates have created a real sense of division in New Zealand.

 Many unvaccinated people have been excluded from society – 13-year-olds who can’t play rugby with their mates, people who have lost jobs, and people unable to go out to dinner with friends.

The Government’s instinct should be to remove restrictions on normal life as soon as they’re no longer justified. Of course, if the risk changes, we can put the Framework back in place.

Isolation periods for people who get Covid-19, and their household contacts, will still be important to limit spread, as well as rapid antigen tests which National has campaigned on for months.

Mask-wearing will also remain important indoors, but overall we need to send the message that life is returning to normal.