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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.”

End of SIT sponsorship a backward step

March 14, 2022 Share

Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says her worst fears have been realised with the Southern Institute of Technology ending its long-term sponsorship of Southland’s three professional sporting teams.

“I’m hugely disappointed that SIT has withdrawn this funding support from the Southland Stags, the Southern Steel and the Southland Sharks. These have been positive and collaborative relationships over up to 20 years and I don’t believe the decision to end them is the right one.

“Unfortunately, as I predicted back at the outset of the Government's polytechnic megamerger, there would be ramifications for the province and for SIT and its students, with the loss of local input, local control and the management of local assets and funding.

“I would also point out that SIT had a $2million surplus last year, and yet feels unable to support the Southland community through sponsorship deals like this, and it makes me question what outside pressure or influence has been placed on the board in making this decision.

“As a former CEO at SIT, I was involved in establishing all of these sponsorship deals because I could see the benefit in the relationships - not only for the institute and its students, but also from a marketing perspective in reinforcing the SIT brand and from a social perspective in supporting sport in Southland.

“This to me is a backward step and another example of SIT withdrawing from the Southland community, and the collaborative relationship that once existed, as it prepares to become swallowed up in the Government’s megamerger juggernaut.”

Southlanders struggling with cost of living crisis

March 10, 2022 Share

Many Southland families have their backs to the wall as they struggle to make ends meet during the current cost of living crisis, Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says.

“Inflation is at a thirty year high, with the cost of everyday basics like food, petrol and housing all going through the roof, and it’s worrying that the average Southland family is now worse off than they were 12 months ago.

“In fact there are estimates that people have spent between $4000 and $5000 extra, in the past year, on basic items such as food, fuel, rent and mortgage costs.

“Couple that with additional back to school expenses, like laptops, uniforms and sports fees, plus time off work for Covid, and it’s no wonder many Southland families are really finding it tough.

“While the Prime Minister might deny that there’s a crisis, it would be more productive for her Government to look at ways to help families who are hurting,

“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.

“A family with two adults on the average wage would benefit by over $1,700 a year, while someone earning $55,000 a year would pay $800 less tax. Everyone earning over $78,100 would be better off by over $1,000 a year. In addition, the couple rate for NZ Super would go up by $546 per year on top of the scheduled increase this April.

“No one will get rich, but these tax cuts would ease the current cost of living crisis and make things a little better for local families in need.”

Western Star Column February 2022

March 07, 2022 Share

Originally published as a column in the Western Star

Struggling Western Southland businesses, who rely on tourism and visitors to the area for a large part of their income, will find little to celebrate with the Government’s decision to open up New Zealand’s borders.

It’s been a tough couple of years for local operators with Covid lockdowns and the Government’s traffic light system taking their toll, and while domestic visitor numbers have helped boost revenue, many local operators tell me that they’re really starting to feel the pinch.

Unfortunately the Government has overlooked the urgent needs of businesses in places like Western Southland, Fiordland and Stewart Island, with its latest announcement.

The five-stage phased reopening of our border will see tourists from Australia, and other visa-free countries, allowed in no later than July, while travellers from the rest of the world will be kept out until October.

However, it’s the 10 day self-isolation period, required for all travellers, that is causing tourist operators the most concern.

In fact, some believe that the continuing requirement for self-isolation means that New Zealand will remain essentially off the map for international travellers, because nobody will consider coming here on holiday if they have to sit in a hotel room for 10 days.

Once again the Government hasn’t listened to local people, or provided local solutions that are fit for purpose.