This week I had the good fortune to spend a few days in New Plymouth. It’s a fairly long trip so I had plenty of time to contemplate what I would find on arrival. It’s an oil town, of course – right in the heart of the oil and gas fields on and off-shore Taranaki.
Being one who does listen to the news and therefore inescapably the spin coming out of the Green Party and its activist networks, I had expected to see oil rigs blotting the landscape and contaminated waterways and beaches. I didn’t. What I did see was a prosperous community doing well on the back of the oil industry.
I have no doubt had oil and gas not been discovered and extracted, New Plymouth would be just another remote provincial town struggling to get by on primary produce, forestry, and whatever else it can do; much like Gisborne, Southland, or Northland.
The fact is a lot of oil money has gone into the community and into local infrastructure, including community infrastructure like the waterfront walkway and various art centres. They have turned what is a naturally inhospitable and wild West Coast habitat into a wonderful asset for visitors and locals.
That does not mean to say every community is benefiting from oil money. Some of the old-time townships in Taranaki are struggling – places like Eltham some 30 minutes to the south.
Today the town’s main employers are the Mainland speciality cheese factory and the Riverlands freezing works. According to the town’s official website, it’s most recent claim to fame was back in 2010 when the locals baked the world’s largest scone (121kg). I can honestly report there was no sign of the scone when I passed through and those that were available in the local bakery could be measures in grams not kilos.
One can imagine it as a prosperous township in a former era. Everything about the place has a 1930s feel about it and it was not hard to picture streets bustling with gents with waistcoats with fob watches and ladies wearing feathered hats.
Most of the former elegant buildings have succumbed to age and inattention and those that have been restored stand out as symbols of individual idealism rather than commercial reality. Without an economic reason for being, many of the town folk have moved on to a place where there is work, taking with them the human spirit that gave the town a more energetic life.
Perhaps we here in the North should learn some lessons from New Plymouth and Eltham. The world does not owe us a living, and will not give one to us without asking for something in return. That’s why we should embrace very opportunity available to us – including exploiting whatever oil and mining reserves may exist – and encouraging those brave enough to start up a new business to do so.