The real reason we don't have a proper hospital - and still rely on a volunteer fire brigade

by Peter Newport - Apr 01, 2020


There’s a saying in Wellington political circles that “you can’t give money to Queenstown.”

That view has been around for decades and applies equally during a National or Labour Government. The underlying meaning is that we are seen to be rich and it would politically unpopular to give money to a “rich” community, when other parts of NZ are seen to be less well off.

There might have been a short Golden Age when everyone in Queenstown was rich or at least well off. That would have been in the sixties or seventies when mass tourism started to boom but before we needed lots of cheap labour to run the industry.

Since then Queenstown has, in reality, struggled with massive levels of wage and social inequality that no amount of publicity about crowded, ghetto-style worker accommodation has managed to highlight to Parliament in Wellington. A blind eye was turned - for decades. It was the acceptable price of Queenstown being a cash cow for the Government’s bank balance via GST, PAYE and all of the ancillary tax benefits that flowed from mass tourism.

Now the true nature of that quid pro quo is becoming crystal clear in the harsh daylight of Covid-19.

In plain English, the deal between Queenstown and Wellington was that the giant tourism operators could do their own thing, pretty much without limits, as long as the taxes flowed to Wellington and Queenstown did not ask for Government help with things like hospitals, fire brigades, roads and airports.

Queenstown became a private business playground where many of the normal rules of Government, and democracy, got suspended in favour of that simple Wellington deal – give us lots of taxes and we’ll essentially leave you alone.

Of course, like all deals, this one did not make sense forever. The problems started when lots of people living here found it hard to survive. Wages were low and the cost of living was high – ironically both because of tourism. Also, another group of people moved here from Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch with the strange notion that getting very rich from tourism was not the prime goal in life. These new residents moved here because it was a very beautiful part of New Zealand with very strong community values.

And yet, the old deal still survived. The outdated arrangement stayed in force – well past its expiry date. The taxes flowed to Wellington and the tourism Pioneers got richer and richer. Former Mayor and now NZ Ski owner Sir John Davies bought a $23 million corporate jet, the Skyline bosses saw their company shares reach a billion-dollar benchmark and Real Journeys/Wayfare was heading for a rumoured IPO that would have delivered many more hundreds of millions to that company’s founders. It’s fair to say that such a plan is now dead in the water.

At the same time the traffic got worse, our paradise was compromised by ugly new shopping malls and hotels that showed no respect for the environment – and QLDC committed to a 10-year, billion-dollar plan that was focussed on growth, growth and more growth.

What many people don’t realise is that massive growth in the Queenstown Lakes is specifically targeted by the Government as part of an existing Urban Growth Partnership. It’s hard to imagine a less appropriate part of NZ for huge growth when land is at such a premium. It makes no sense at all. Incidentally, that’s what all of this Spatial Plan consulting is about – it is, in effect the sugar-coating and “engagement” that will green light new subdivisions and shopping malls and two big airports – all of course pre-Covid-19.

Oh, and that billion-dollar tourism-centric QLDC 10 year development plan was to be funded by us – the ratepayer – with annual increases at an eye-watering 7% or more.

But, a key feature of that old, historic deal remained in force. The Government would still not help Queenstown. There was a special licence in place. An outdated licence. There’s been a few cosmetic crumbs, but we remain fundamentally unfunded by Wellington.

That’s in all likelihood why we don’t have a proper hospital, a convention centre or our fair share of the Provincial Growth Fund. It’s not to do with Clutha-Southland being a “safe National seat” – it’s to do with cold, hard cash and “business being blood red in tooth and claw.” Local tourism was supposed to fund our infrastructure – but it didn’t.

Of course, now that the Covid-19 situation has well and truly hit the fan the Tourism Pioneers seem more likely to run for the hills than invest in the community’s future. It’s time to leave the casino. If this turns out to be wrong and there’s a late run of philanthropy and social-minded generosity, then that’s great. But we are still waiting as the redundancies pile up and the Queenstown business community maintains its deafening, traditional silence.

Mayor Jim Boult may protest this perspective with claims of all the good that tourism has done for the district. He may well claim that jobs, investment and opportunity have all been created. The problem is that it now looks like these were the wrong type of jobs, the wrong types of investment and the wrong types of opportunity. The jobs were all low pay, the investment was into property not people and the opportunities were for the few, not the many. Most local media have acted as cheerleaders for this unhealthy game being themselves funded by local advertising dollars from the tourism sector. Now, that will all change - courtesy not of common sense but of a novel virus that changed everything overnight.

The canary in our particular cage, and there are many candidates including our volunteer fire brigades, might as well be a proper hospital. The West Coast has two decent hospitals – we don’t have one. It’s an obscenity that over 7,000 people highlighted when they signed the Crux Hospital petition last year.

Now, with Covid-19, its clear that even without three million tourists a year we need a proper hospital. Even Jim Boult calls the current one “a joke.” Of course, the staff that work there are great. They are heroes. But from what we hear they are overworked and undervalued by a SDHB in Dunedin that has no resources or motivation to help the Southern Lakes. Of course, the SDHB is, in spite of its poor management, ultimately controlled by Wellington purse strings.

The community is generally backing the Prime Minister in her response to Covid-19. How we feel locally about our council and our business leaders, the ones that were driving the growth at any cost agenda until just a couple of weeks ago, might be an entirely different matter.



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