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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.

Liz Craig's Select Committee actions called into question

April 07, 2022 Share

Labour’s Invercargill MP Liz Craig needs to reflect on who she’s representing in Parliament as she blocks a briefing into Government mental health funding, in her role as chair of the Health Select Committee, Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says.

“As Health Select Committee chair this was Dr Craig’s chance to act in good conscience and allow some light to be shed on mental health issues in this country.

“Instead she toed the party line, bowed to pressure from senior Labour ministers to shut the debate down, and effectively denied people, like those whom she represents in Southland, the right to democracy.

“Considering her health background, and her role as a local MP representing the people of the South, it seems perverse that she would want to block an inquiry into the Government’s performance around mental health, instead of doing the right thing.

“ACT, the Greens and the Maori Party all supported National’s Mental Health spokesperson Matt Doocey's request to the select committee yesterday for a briefing from the Ministry of Health into their response to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission's monitoring report.

“This report was damning of Labour's performance on mental health, and people up and down the country including in Invercargill have been asking for details on where the Government went wrong and what happened to the millions of dollars in funding.

“So much for Labour’s open and transparent governance – and how disappointing that Dr Craig was prepared to allow this to happen.”

Government needs to acknowledge Southland drought conditions urgently

March 31, 2022 Share

Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds wants the Government to declare a small to medium scale adverse event for drought in Southland.

“The prolonged lack of rain in Southland is turning into a very serious weather situation for rural communities. I am very concerned about the impact this is having on our province and I think it’s high time that the Government recognized the issue.

“Farmers and their businesses are hurting – financially and emotionally, and the impact is spreading to their families, their staff and local communities.

“An acknowledgement by Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, of the extremely dry conditions Southern farmers are grappling with, would go a long way in providing farmers with some much-needed support.

“Federated Farmers says many Southland farmers don’t believe the devastating situation around this province is being acknowledged by Government because of the wet conditions being experienced elsewhere in the country.

“But NIWA figures show Invercargill, Tiwai Point and Stewart Island have had their driest summer on record, and anecdotally farmers in Central, Western and Southern Southland have told me they’ve not seen conditions this dry in many decades. They also say they're worried and getting desperate.

“Much has been made of dairy’s high payout this year, but many of those benefits are now being swallowed up by increased fuel and fertiliser prices, and the cost of buying in supplementary feed to keep stock going. 

"Further to that, sheep, beef and dairy farmers are being affected by a shortage of killing space at local meat processing plants which is  adding to the pressure, because they can't get stock off their farms.

“There’s simply no growth as paddocks burn off and baleage is in desperately short supply across the region, while prices have increased from $90, up to around $150 a bale.

“There’s also a total fire ban across the region and water restriction in place, while those relying on tank water are having to wait up to a week to buy in household supplies.

“This is a chronic situation for our farming community and I would encourage anyone who has concerns around their wellbeing, or that of a mate, neighbour or family member, to get in touch with the local Rural Support Trust.

“National’s Agriculture spokesperson Barbara Kuriger will be visiting the Invercargill electorate this Friday (April 1) so that she can get a first-hand look at conditions around the province.”

Tertiary job losses loom

March 28, 2022 Share

The Labour Government urgently need to open the borders to international students as university and polytechnic job losses loom, National’s Tertiary Education spokesperson Penny Simmonds says.

“Universities and polytechnics are currently considering staff redundancies as a way of coping with declining enrolments this year.

“The Government is allowing 5,000 international students into the country next month - but universities and polytechnics can only access 2,150 students, or 43 per cent, so this concession will do little to ease the urgent staffing issues facing this sector.

“On top of that, international research now shows New Zealand is falling out of favour with international students, with this country ranked last among the major English-speaking education destinations, in a survey of more than 10,000 people from 93 countries.

“And the effects are obvious - according to the Ministry of Education in 2019, New Zealand had a little over 22,000 fulltime international students paying total tuition fees of $562 million. The figures for 2021 and 2022 are estimated to be 70 per cent of that 2019 figure.

“It is appalling that this Government has allowed international education in this country to decline to this level - and for it to now impact on the valuable tertiary teaching staff at our universities and polytechnics is unacceptable.

“We must act urgently to prevent further deterioration in this sector and that means opening up our borders and not restricting international student numbers coming here.”

Local representation around disability changes essential - Southland Express column

March 28, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in The Southland Express

Significant change is coming in the disability sector this year, including the establishment of a Ministry for Disabled People

After many years the Government is now reviewing options for disabled people and I want to be as positive and supportive as possible of this new approach in the hope that it will be an opportunity to bring disability issues to the fore in this country.

Last week I attended a briefing with MP’s from both sides of the house to hear about how the proposals might shape up.

I for one believe that any change must be driven by the disabled community of New Zealand.

People with invisible and visible disabilities continue to experience barriers in everyday life.

The formation of this Ministry, along with the development of accessibility legislation, must include full and thorough disabled community consultation and representation to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

As National’s Disability spokesperson, and having personal knowledge of disability issues, I intend to keep a very watchful eye on progress - and at the very least ensure that the voice of the disabled community, in Southland and beyond, is heard.

Over one million, or 25 percent of New Zealanders, identify as disabled reflecting the strength and significance of this group in our society.

This new ministry cannot be a disability agency in name only, it must also work to promote and address disability issues and create positive and long overdue change.

Forestry conversion at what cost? - Southland Times column

March 28, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in the Southland Times

There’s a worrying trend unfolding in rural communities as thousands of hectares of lush productive farmland is being lost to forestry.

Foreign investment in forestry threatens schools, it threatens jobs and it threatens the provinces, as companies from overseas purchase rural land and plant trees to offset their carbon credits.

Farms that our forefathers broke in and developed are being planted in pine trees, earning nothing for up to 30 years. Forestry also provides fewer jobs than farming.

In August, Ingka Group, the parent company of Swedish retail giant Ikea, was approved by the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) to purchase 5500ha of farmland in the Catlins.

The OIO is the Government agency responsible for regulating foreign direct investment in New Zealand and its decision to approve the Wisp Hill Station sale was controversial.

Over the next five years a total of 3000ha of the station will be planted in more than 3 million radiata pine seedlings, while 2200ha will be left to naturally revert into native bush.

This land was a sheep and beef farming operation and it is the loss of productive farmland like this which is threatening traditional farming in this country and gravely worrying the rural sector.

Deals like this will reduce Ikea’s carbon footprint. However, the sale will do nothing for New Zealand taking good farmland out of food production, with a loss of export earnings, depopulation of rural communities and an increase in farm prices taking them beyond the reach of most kiwi buyers.

In fact, a local man who was interested in buying and farming Wisp Hill Station contacted me last year and expressed his disappointment and frustration at the exorbitant sale price, which was well beyond him.

New Zealand is the most efficient food producer in the world and our primary sector creates most of the wealth for this country, to pay for our health, education and social services - we cannot squander the land on which our economy is built.

Ironically the Government’s own Forestry Minister Stuart Nash has said that he is opposed to whole farms being bought up and planted into forests – especially by “foreign purchasers” - yet his words ring hollow when he continues to allow these sales to proceed.

Further, it was the Labour Government itself, who in October 2018 changed the Overseas Investment Act and introduced a ‘special forestry test’ streamlining the consent process, encouraging overseas investment and ultimately allowing more farm sales and more tree planting.

In fact, OIO figures show that in the three years since the introduction of the ‘special forestry test’ in 2018 a huge 36,724ha of land, across 40 kiwi farms, has been approved for sale to overseas investors, while a further 175,622ha of existing forestry was also sold.

These are big numbers and it’s a travesty that this wonderful land of ours is being sold off in this way with little, or no benefit to New Zealand.

Concern is growing - I say this issue needs to be addressed with urgency.

More evidence Labour is failing on mental health

March 25, 2022 Share

Information revealing that a $25 million fund for free mental health services for tertiary students has delivered just 304 counselling sessions in 18 months is emblematic of Labour’s inability to deliver, say National’s Mental Health and Suicide Prevention spokesperson Matt Doocey and Tertiary Education spokesperson Penny Simmonds.

“Labour has talked a big game on mental health but it’s yet another case of more spin and very little delivery,” Mr Doocey says.

“At a time of increased mental distress in our young people, Labour’s complete inability to deliver is preventing young people from getting the support they desperately need.

“The fund has delivered 304 sessions at a cost of $4 million – that’s $13,000 per session. That $4 million could have funded 30,000 counselling sessions, so why hasn’t it?

“This is heartbreaking wastage. It’s a kick in the guts for parents across New Zealand who are battling growing waiting lists to get their child the mental health support they desperately need.

“This is more evidence to back up the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission’s damning report which stated that improvements in mental health have not materialised under Labour despite big spending increases, and left many Kiwis asking where all the money has gone.”

Ms Simmonds says many of the students who should have had access to this support over the past 18 months are no longer studying and therefore ineligible for the free counselling. 

“The help just wasn’t there when they needed it­. It's unbelievable that 18 months after this fund was announced, universities are still waiting to get contracts to get access to the funding.

“This Government seems to think that simply announcing funding will solve the issue. The job is not completed with the issuing of a press release. They actually need to follow through and make sure the money is going where it’s needed to get better outcomes for Kiwis.”

Food price increases hit Southlanders hard

March 14, 2022 Share

No wonder Southlanders are struggling at the supermarket with annual February food prices recording the largest increase in over a decade, Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says.

“According to Stats NZ food prices rose 6.8 percent in February, the largest annual increase since July 2011.

“Fruit and vegetables went up a whopping 17 percent compared to February 2021, meat and chicken was up by 7.1 percent and general groceries by 5.4 percent.

“Goodness knows how families are feeding their kids at the moment, particularly with essentials like fruit and vegetables being so pricey.

“Inflation is at a thirty year high, with other necessities like petrol and housing costs all going through the roof.

“This means many people are just scraping by from week to week and it’s virtually impossible for families to get ahead – they’re just working to survive.

“We also can’t blame vegetable growers for the massive price increases – with many of them saying energy, wage, transport and Government audit costs are pushing them to the brink.

“It’s also gauling that the Government is doing nothing to ease these costs.

“At the upcoming Budget the Finance Minister should adjust the bottom three income tax thresholds to account for the inflation we’ve seen in the past four years under Labour.

“These tax cuts would ease the current cost of living crisis and make things a little easier for Southern families in need.”