Rotorua’s tourism sector is booming as visitors flock to its geothermal and cultural attractions. But outside the city, in towns throughout the sprawling Māori electorate of Waiariki, people are struggling and a fierce battle to represent them is being waged. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

If you talk to people working at Rotorua’s thermal pools, its cultural villages, and its hotels and motels, then things are good.

Visitors to the town spent almost $800 million in the past year (up 6.6 percent) while its GDP for the year to June swelled by three percent – higher than the New Zealand average. The tourism sector employs almost a fifth of the workforce.

Michelle Templer, chief executive of Destination Rotorua, says in the past seven years an extra $300m a year has flowed into Rotorua from tourism. Although it is boosted by the country’s rising appeal to international tourists, more than half of money spent in Rotorua is by fellow New Zealanders, mostly Aucklanders.

Iwi invests heavily in the sector, illustrated by the recent announcement of a luxury waterfront spa and wellness centre with a Te Ao Māori focus by Pukeroa Oruwhata Group owned by Ngāti Whakaue.

Templer says the industry will be paying close attention to who forms the next government to see if international tourists will be taxed more to visit and whether extra money will be available for infrastructure.

“There’s a number of funds and opportunities so we’ll be watching closely what happens at the election because I think that will create potential opportunities.

“For Rotorua, some of that will be around career pathways for young people because we really need to make sure we have talent coming through to run these businesses.”

Tourism ventures may have the problem of trying to find people to fill jobs, but that success has not spread out into the regions surrounding Rotorua.

In the sprawling Māori electorate of Waiariki, people in towns such as Kawerau and Murupara struggle for jobs as the larger cities leave them behind.

People who spoke to Newsroom were fine with the idea of international visitors paying extra tax to visit the country and pay for infrastructure, but didn’t believe it was the main problem facing the area.

With the election only one day away, it will be more pressing issues that decide how they vote.

Euan Hall, 58, a maintenance worker at the Rotorua Central Mall, said he had already given his vote to Labour because “we just need change”.

Euan Hall is voting Labour because he is sick of the poverty surrounding him. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

“I’ve been here nearly all my life, and in the last 10 years what I’ve seen with the community is disgraceful: I see people not able to eat, I see people going through the rubbish bins here for food.”

Hall said despite all the tourists, money issues are on the minds of many in Rotorua: he used to make $1200 a week working in the forestry sector during the 1990s but is now making do on only $15.87 an hour.

Connie, a Rotorua woman in her mid-50s studying to become a counsellor who did not want to give her last name, voted for NZ First due to her concerns about the level of immigration in New Zealand and how it has affected the employment prospects of people like her son.

“My own reasoning is because it will allow for more people to go out and get some jobs … there’s nothing wrong with the people, it’s just the fact it took him a long time to get a job.”

Connie said mental health was also a big issue, with her eyes being opened to the problems in New Zealand through her studies.

Connie is enrolled in the Waiariki electorate, where incumbent Te Ururoa Flavell is fighting to keep his party alive and up against Labour’s Tamati Coffey.

But Connie didn’t vote for either: she thinks Coffey hasn’t done enough in the area, while Flavell “has spread himself too much like butter” between the electorate and his other duties.

One vote lost in a race that could go down to the wire.

The last great race

In the Rotorua electorate incumbent Todd McClay, of National, will almost certainly retain his seat.

But the far more interesting battle is in Waiariki.

Encompassing the larger towns of Rotorua, Tauranga, and Taupo, it also includes small, economically struggling settlements with dwindling populations.

Flavell, the Māori Party co-leader, has held the area since 2008, but at this election the seat is of more importance than ever.

There are several scenarios that will shape the Māori Party’s future on Saturday.

In the Te Tai Hauauru Māori electorate they have a strong candidate in Howie Tamati, a councillor and former Kiwis rugby league captain who is running against Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe.

A recent poll had Tamati ahead. If he does win, how many of his colleagues he can bring along to Parliament will depend on the party vote.

Co-leader Marama Fox is first on the list, so if Tamati won but Flavell lost, she would be first off-the-rank with at least 1.2 percent of the party vote. Flavell would be gone unless they reached more than two percent.

But if both Flavell and Tamati win their seats the party would need more than two percent of the party vote to get Fox back in Parliament.

In the most recent poll on Thursday night, Newshub’s Reid Research poll, the Māori Party was on just 0.4 percent. In the 2014 election, they received 1.3 percent.

Flavell’s challenger, Tamati Coffey, is a former TVNZ presenter with the benefit of a high profile and, like many of his fellow Labour candidates, enjoying a boost in popularity in the wake of Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to leader.

Coffey contested the Rotorua seat at the last election but was soundly defeated by McClay.

This time around, things will likely be much closer.

Speaking to Newsroom after casting his vote in Rotorua, Flavell said he was feeling confident with party polling putting him comfortably ahead and good feedback from the community.

Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell casts his vote in Rotorua. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

He dismissed suggestions people were upset he had not spent enough time in the region because of his Ministerial workload.

But there was no doubt the race would be close, as this election had been flipped on its head.

“It’s a little bit different, just this whole thing around Jacinda Ardern has changed the whole complexion of things, even for Māori voters. Kelvin Davis could be deputy prime minister for goodness sake, so you can’t blunt that and I’m not going to say it hasn’t had an effect, of course it has, because we’ve seen it in the polls.

“But whether it’s actually had an effect on Waiariki voters who have been very loyal to the Maori Party, and to me, in the past 12 years? I don’t think so.”

Flavell believes the party will poll higher than the last election, even with Labour on a high.

When asked why, he says it’s because Labour’s support is starting to dip, as is Winston Peters’ and NZ First’s as the public “smarten up”.

Flavell says he would have “great difficulty” working with NZ First in government, likely because of the party’s stance of abolishing the Māori seats.

Is the Māori Party irrelevant, now that other parties have greater Māori representation?

Flavell bristles at this, saying the Māori Party are essential because they are not beholden to a greater caucus’s view.

“They (other Māori MPs) know in their heart of hearts some of their policies are rubbish and are against Māori achievement, that’s what I say when it comes to the crunch Māori dreams and aspirations will be thrown under the bus for the betterment of everyone else.”

But his opponent, Coffey, believes the Māori Party’s time is up.

At the start of the campaign he believed they still had a place in Parliament, but after seeing them run a negative campaign focused on old issues such as the Foreshore and Seabed Act he is sick of hearing them grasp at old straws.

“I think you can shout tinorangatiritanga as loud as you want but at the end of the day they still need to go and ask the National Party for money to put anything through.”

Labour’s Tamati Coffey believes the Māori Party’s time is up. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

Coffey is dismissive of polls that put him well behind Flavell, with Labour’s own polling putting the race much closer and the huge support from the community suggesting it will be close. So close, in fact, that he believes it will be within 100 votes.

But even if Flavell is the winner, Coffey will still likely end up in Parliament as a list MP.

He believes his political inexperience will be balanced by his empathy.

“I don’t know what kind of training anyone ever has to be an MP, there’s not like there’s an MP school that you can go to to learn. I guess at the end of the day you’ve just got to be a good New Zealander with your heart in the right place and your values intact.”

Flavell had some final words of advice for his younger opponent when asked if he thought whether he would make a good MP.

“I’ve got no idea. When I started it was totally new to me, everybody doesn’t believe it but a step from civvy street into Parliament is one big chunk of a move … everybody’s got to realise it’s a very hard game.”

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