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29/10/2018 — Economics, Politics and Government
Dunedin venue may test Labour’s fuel nerve
By Dene Mackenzie

After 30 years, the Labour Party is returning to Dunedin to hold its annual conference in the city which has consistently provided the party with MPs and cabinet ministers since the party was formed.

With little notice, the party announced on Saturday it was returning to the city where Health Minister David Clark can take centre stage as the Government continues on with its plan to rebuild Dunedin Hospital.

The conference is being held next weekend, either a last minute decision or one deliberately timed to avoid giving protesters the opportunity to organise demonstrations against the Government.

The city is a Labour stronghold as far as elected MPs go. National has held the party vote in several elections, but Dunedin North returned to Labour in 2017.

The rebuild taskforce is led by another former Dunedin North MP and health minister Pete Hodgson.

The city also houses two people who are not completely flavour of the month with the party.

Dunedin South MP Clare Curran quit as a cabinet minister after failing to account for meetings which were held in secret. One of them led to a top New Zealand broadcaster losing her job. The other meeting meant someone who was due to be appointed the country’s chief technology officer was paid off and sent packing.

The other one is Ms Curran’s predecessor David Benson-Pope who was sacked by former prime minister Helen Clark as a minister. He was successfully challenged for the safe Dunedin South seat by Ms Curran.

Benson-Pope sat quietly for a while but is now back in local body politics with the Dunedin City Council and is one of the highest-polling thanks to local name recognition.

The last time Labour held its conference in Dunedin, the late Jim Anderton challenged to become president. Current Labour MP Ruth Dyson was the party’s preference, taking the job and leaving Anderton storming out of the Dunedin Town Hall to set up the New Labour Party with the help of Dunedin trade unionists.

This conference is not likely to be so sensational. The appetite for protest in Dunedin has waned with the years. However, Labour is in a tight spot with its union supporters taking strike action throughout the country.

Teachers have voted for rolling strikes and the head of the teachers union is a principal in Dunedin. Dunedin has not had rolling bus strikes yet, but Auckland and Wellington are feeling those effects.

Health professionals in public hospitals and members of the public service, such as Inland Revenue staff, are all involved in various stages of wage negotiations. The threat of industrial action hangs over the Government.

Perhaps, the party considered Dunedin less of a risk of protest than holding its conference in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch.

Also, Housing Minister Phil Twyford continues to be criticised for his failure to push KiwiBuild along at a faster rate. He and several other ministers turned up on Saturday in their ministerial BMWs, five in all reportedly, to show Jayne, a 25-year-old doctor and her online marketing partner Ross, their new $649,000 home in Auckland.

Now, the problem for many is the doctor will go on to earn a large salary and her partner will already be earning some serious cash. Again, those on low incomes have been locked out of the modern day equivalent of a state house.

Also, the particular housing project was started under the previous National administration.

Fuel prices are hurting many Labour supporters and though the Commerce Commission will get powers to investigate, no one really expects anything to change. Petrol is $2.30 in Invercargill and $2.43 in Dunedin. Levin, a town between Wellington and Palmerston North, is the cheapest in the country, well below Wellington where presumably fuel is offloaded.

To make it even worse, Labour MPs and delegates will fly into Dunedin, BMW cars will be brought to the city to ferry around ministers – hardly helping the country’s carbon credits.

There is plenty to criticise Labour for when it arrives in town on Friday. However, protests are likely to be kept to a minimum.

*Dene Mackenzie is a Dunedin political commentator.

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