Jul 19, 2011

Kawerau on Closeup

Last night Closeup ran a story titled “shocking teen life exposed in Kawerau” (or words to that effect). The story was alarmist and delivered without any context to ground the viewer. The panel discussion following the story was even worse. John Tamihere provided useful and insightful commentary, however Christine Rankin and Daryl Aim contributed nothing useful.

I will preface this post and restate my connections to Kawerau. Long time readers will know that I grew up in Kawerau, although I have lived in Wellington for the past one and half years and Rotorua the five years prior, I still call Kawerau home and I have an intimate and deep understanding of the people and the issues.

To be fair, Closeup has highlighted issues that need to be addressed. Where the programme strays is in tainting the entire town as dysfunctional. Yes, there have been incidents of organised fights, sex for drugs and youth suicides, however this is symptomatic of a larger problem in New Zealand society – not symptomatic of problems confined to Kawerau. These sorts of things are hardly alarming or new. In fact organised fights and suicide are, to be frank, thoroughly pedestrian. Even sex for drugs is hardly unheard of. Spend a night of Courtney Place and you’ll see more than your fair share of such behaviour. Other small towns face the same problems that Kawerau does, Rotorua faces the same problems and so to do a collection of other suburbs and cities. The difference is that the ripples of suicide, organised fights and so on travel further and reverberate across the entire community. Social problems in small towns seem more pronounced because the entire community is affected as opposed to, as is the case in cities, a segment of the community. Kawerau is, for the most part, a good town with a strong sense of community and citizenship.

If we are to understand why Kawerau's social problems we need a history lesson. Kawerau’s decline coincided with the onset of Rogernomics and slowly continued through to the early 2000’s. In the late 80’s the Mill experienced large-scale redundancies and large retailers like Farmers and the Warehouse decided to locate their Eastern Bay of Plenty stores in Whakatane. Partly because the Kawerau labour market was volatile (job losses and strike actions were common) and partly because Kawerau was experiencing something of an exodus. Many middle and high-income mill workers left Kawerau for nearby lifestyle towns like Ohope. Demand for the Mill’s product also declined through the 90’s as competition throughout Australasia and Asia increased. Many Kawerau residents started to question the long term viability of the Mill and the local economy. Consequently, many residents searched for opportunities elsewhere.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s the town stabilised. Although the population continued to decline the future of the Mill was certain and other opportunities, such as geothermal power, emerged. Social indicators continued to paint a depressing picture, however the stats had not manifested into large scale anti-social behaviour.

Fast forward to the mid to late 2000’s and things take a turn for the worst. Small but frequent redundancies begin to occur at the Mill, consequently local businesses begin to flee or go under, no new jobs are created and the local high school hits rock bottom. The town’s decline is complete.

Kawerau is the victim of failure – failure on the part of successive governments. Successive governments have thrown resources at Kawerau. However, those resources have not come with qualifications. The government has not ensured adequate funding is given to the best organisations, government agencies in the town work in competition with each other and improved outcomes are, therefore, compromised.

Perhaps the most significant let down is the chronic short-termism that plagues New Zealand political and policy thinking. New Zealand is always searching for immediate solutions and quick fixes. We like to treat symptoms but are blind to the structural causes of anti-social behaviour etc… The government can encourage novelty schemes for beneficiaries, increase the number of Police and open a trade training school, but unless the structural causes are addressed no long term difference will be made. New generations of lost children will be made each day.

The structural cause of anti-social behaviour in Kawerau is, in my opinion, our current economic settings. Let me be clear, I believe in the market as the best mechanism, however I do not believe in the neo-liberal model New Zealand adopts. A model that encourages low wages and inequality. A model associated with, and in my opinion responsible for, poor educational and health outcomes, high crime rates and incarceration and chronic inequality.

Unless we switch to a model that promotes higher wages, reduces inequality and addresses other poor social and economic problems, like the problems that occur in Kawerau, will continue to occur.     

One thing that really gets me is ignorant suggestions that gangs and drugs are the cause of social problems in Kawerau. Gangs have always been a problem in Kawerau. By all accounts gang violence peaked in the 80’s. During my childhood gang violence was non-existent. Many of the town’s troubles are blamed on the presence and influence of gangs. However, this misses the point. Gangs are an expression of social dysfunction, not a cause. Undoubtedly, gang culture influences many young people, but gang culture is itself a symptom and suppressing one symptom will not improve the condition. The same is true of drugs. Drugs are an expression of a larger problem and serve mainly to lock people into destructive lifestyles.  

I am disappointed Closeup chose to spin the situation in Kawerau. Kawerau faces serious issues that deserve adult treatment, not sensationalist bullshit. 

Closeup will feature a follow-up story tonight. I will comment on it tomorrow hopefully.


  1. If Community leadership is strong and gaining traction then the cornerstone of a real and meaningful chance for Kawerau as a community and a home for many of us, to strengthen by its own design, it own means and the will of its people is more sustainable and achievable. What I do know is that Kawerau deserves far better media and journalistic treatment that it has been dealt of late.......the last thing it needs is media parasites, trolling for a "juicy" CIS story. Shamefully Mark Ainsley and Minister Bennett were after polling booth and tv ratings - Ainsley more abhorent in his forked-tongued defence of Kawerau merely to conclude that the only conceiveable solution was MORE police??? Kawerau MUST be supported to find KAWERAU-driven solutions....they MUST be the cultivators of their own thriving futures, be the proprietor of their own improprieties, be the architect of a new generation future with a form and shape that fits well with young and old - ALL POWER to the small town that grew many, many of this nations leaders. POWER to a town who was once the productivity KING of this nation and boasted the highest Income per capita in New Zealand during the 80's and 90's - ALL POWER to a town and community that hesitated NOT to lend its hand to support, encourage and uplift its neighbouring communities seconds after the cries for assistance rung out ! I remember the Mums and Dads, the aunties, uncles, neighbours, teachers, professionals, shop-keepers - OUR titles and incomes did not separate our compassion for each-other as a community.......THE PEOPLES' WILL is often under-estimated but if leadership is robust and has clarity and selflessness Kawerau will rise again ! Tena mai ano ra taatau e pikkau kaha nei i te kaupapa !

  2. To be honest Morgan, this is a result of the Government privatising forestry back in the 1980's. Had we held onto the the NZ Forest Service/Forestry Corp's mass of forests instead of flogging them off to overseas pension funds, we could have focused on building a value added industry around those logs instead of putting them on the boat to China, and kept the people of Kawerau in work in these industries.


  3. TO date i have heard and spoken to alot of people from Kawerau and surrounding towns about the 'issues of Kawerau'.thats alot of korero!! I have seen'closeup'and the bad publicity and wrap our town has been getting since its airing.
    When i first heard about the Monday nite 'CloseUp' programme, it got my attention so i made a point to watch Tuesday nites follow on..!
    What i found interesting was the fact that i am originally from Kawerau, have lived here most of my adult life, have five young teenagers from ages 15 to 23, know most of the people who actually originate or lived here most of there life, and yet i have not been directly affected by these 'issues'?? Indirectly, yes but my question is 'How come i dont know? I have asked my tamariki the question 'what do you think are the problems with young people in kawerau? Their answers are pretty interestingly simple...but they dont know either..so my next thought is 'Is it is only a minority group within the community? and who are they? what characteristics/ similarities do they have? (ie) age,lifestyle,money,employment...so on? is only.
    Is it really a 'Maori' issue..?
    John Tamihere made some valid comments and hit it on the head referring to Iwi leaders as concentrating on treaty putea,parents /whanau needing more opportunity options, having 3rd party government agencies to clean up after ourselves, certain individual influences need to be isolated, and our value systems need to be re-evaluated. but mostly working cohesively. My personal view on the 'issues' is talk and include participation by the YOUTH themselves.Those who it directly affects, not the high achievers or well to do youth, but the ones who walk around town with their heads held low or the 'trouble makers' if you wana put a stigma on them. They are the obvious ones to ask first!! not after the fact..!!Start at the grassroots of the issue, not at the end..include a select group of people to include age, social background, roles, race, groups within the community.. but specifically those who have the qualities and compassion to want to make a difference..and be proactive not reactive to the issues and in the absolute best interest of those who live there..Kawerau..

    The best place 4 me...!!

  4. Your blog, and other New Zealand blogs are the saving grace of journalism in this country. I feel much more informed after reading this article as well as the comments below about the suicides in Kawerau. Thank you. I just wrote my masters thesis on youth suicide and find Kawerau's case a very extreme but clear example of how policy shapes our lives (especially the lives of 15-24 year olds). I question whether these suicides were perhaps 10 years in the making - I have a hunch that child poverty is directly connected with suicide, especially youth suicide, but there's not a lot of literature around this correlation, yet. I'm not sure what the context of Kawerau was 10 years ago, but I would like to know.

    please e-mail me if you have any comments or thoughts: anne.marie.snider@gmail.com

  5. Kawerau is turning into Otara 30yrs ago.



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