Shane Jones wants Provincial Growth Fund to get 'nephs off the couch'

2019-02-05 01:18:02

ANALYSIS: Mangatoa Station is a long, long way from Wellington – and it feels it.

The Landcorp farm sits atop rolling hills near Kaikohe in Ngāpuhi country, over 800 kilometres from the capital. It's beautiful, but, like much of the Far North, this area is also beset by problems: the unemployment rate is 7.4 per cent, the schools are decile one, and the median household income is south of $46,700.

It's a far cry from Wellington, but the decisions made in the capital do matter to this community. That was the point Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones wanted to make as he rode into town ahead of Waitangi Day with millions of Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) cash in tow.

"The flash words that we assemble in our Cabinet papers have actually today put a pair of gumboots on," Jones said.

"Prince Shane" Jones was here, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Employment Minister Willie Jackson, to revive his promise to get the "nephs off the couch".

These "nephs" are more commonly known in policy circles as NEETs – young people not in employment, education, or training – and they have been a bugbear of governments for decades.

The last time Jones went off on the "nephs" it sounded a lot like he was proposing a work-for-the-dole scheme – a special hate of the Left, as it essentially forces people into work in order to live, and can hurt other wage-earners by providing free or low-cost labour elsewhere.

The actual schemes  outlined are much more Labour-friendly than that.

Jones announced $60m for regional employment hubs – centres that bring together government services for employers and employees, all from the PGF coffers.

Alongside the hubs are investments in two existing programmes, $13.2m for He Poutama Rangatahi (HPR) and $8.8m for the Pacific Employment Support Service, then another $20m for digital connectivity in rural areas and maraes.

These schemes, which have made it through the Wellington machine of cost-benefit analysis mostly unscathed, will hardly upset anyone, Left or Right. Those working in the schemes get paid at least a minimum wage.

So what's left for first-lad-of-the-regions Jones to rark everyone up with? His speech.

"We are not going to rely exclusively on our Filipino Catholic immigrants. We are going to do the bloody work ourselves," he told the crowd to applause.

Given a chance to roll those comments back a few minutes later, Jones did the contrary, saying the Catholic Church had done well financially from the influx of Filipino workers into New Zealand.

"I've just had a gutsful of the New Zealand farming industry bringing Filipino workers in exclusively ... It's nothing personal but my party is New Zealand First."

Jackson –never a fan of holding his tongue – had Jones' back in the war against political correctness.

"You know Shane Jones has a habit of upsetting a few people. When Shane came out with 'get the nephs off the couch' it did upset the politically correct ones in Wellington," Jackson said.

"We all know what Shane was talking about. While it might be a bit sensitive and touchy, the reality is it touched a chord. We know what he was saying."

Jackson said all Māori had a neph on the couch. (NEETs are actually slightly more likely to be women than men.)

He also touched on the structural issues that might explain that, although mostly as a joke.

"I've got some wonderful nephews. One of them had a good explanation for why he wasn't getting off the couch: because the Pākehā stole our land and the colonisation and he'd rather watch the Blues play the Chiefs."

Speaking to media soon after his speech, Jackson was more serious, saying the harm of colonialism was very real – but not an excuse.

"Did colonisation play a part in terms of where Māori are today in terms of the socio-economic conditions? Absolutely. I don't think there's any doubt about it. But that's not an excuse for Māori not to do anything, not to get involved, not to get off the couch."

​Māori are over-represented in prison statistics, over-represented in unemployment statistics, and have worse health outcomes than Pākehā.

Despite this, there was a dearth of Māori-targeted funding in the last Budget – likely thanks to NZ First leader Winston Peters, who has called Māori-targeted funding "creeping apartheid" in the past. Instead, the Government said universal boosts to schemes such as Working For Families would actually benefit Māori more.

But Jackson signalled an end to this stance in the next Budget and the return of money specifically aimed at Māori, pointing out on Sunday that $100m of NZ First's own PGF was allocated to Māori land development.

"We've got to get the balance right,"  he said.

So are these policies – un-PC in presentation, but fairly orthodox in actual design – actually working?

The NEET rate has dropped from 11.8 per cent to 10.1 per cent since the coalition Government took office.

Ministers pointed to these figures when asked about the efficacy of the programmes, but it is impossible to isolate the effects of Government policy on the wider employment rate – there are simply too many other factors at play.

Indeed, Jackson was unable to say confidently how many people would be lifted into employment or training with the schemes.

His HPR scheme had helped two teenagers at the event.

​Shaade Rakete, 19, was a stay-at-home mum of two before joining an agricultural course on a Landcorp farm, where she gets paid to plant native trees and learn other agricultural skills.

"The benefit wasn't supporting us and, yeah ,I just wanted to get out there," Rakete said. "I'm learning how to plant, how to look after plants from seeds, repotting."

Alpine Dunn, 20, was kicked out of school in year 9 (third form). He was "on the couch", he said, "doing nothing".

"I just stayed at home after that."

He also joined the programme about six months ago, saying it was "good to have some income".

The controversy surrounding the policy embodies the challenge facing NZ First in 2019.

The party won every Māori seat in its first proper election. It has since called for a referendum on their abolition.

NZ First's MPs enjoy winking at racial tensions without quite exploiting them. One of the reasons they like saying outrageous things is, of course, for the headlines – and presumably the "PC-gone-mad" vote that comes with it.

But the reality of government with Labour has blunted the chances of NZ First following through seriously. You can't get rid of the Māori seats while in power with a party that holds all seven of them. You can't drastically cut immigration when the workers are needed for KiwiBuild. NZ First can stop things happening – compulsory te reo in schools, for example – but Labour has just as much veto power over policy as NZ First does.

The major policy win for the party over this term is, of course, the mammoth $3b PGF. On the face of it, this is exactly the kind of unorthodox policy NZ First loves.

National, of course, calls it a slush fund, although local National MP Matt King was at the announcement and said he liked some of the outcomes of the fund, if not the fund itself.

But the Wellington machine was never going to let it be a real slush fund. That's why a fund set up to boost potentially risky investment in the regions is instead being used to top up several employment policies run in Wellington.

And as un-PC as Jones can get, there's no way he'll match what Waitangi has in store for Tuesday. That's when Don Brash arrives.

This story was edited after publication.

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