12 Sep 2023

A visit to the birthplace of the Labour party, as it tanks in the polls

From Checkpoint, 5:54 pm on 12 September 2023

Blackball, the West Coast town of about 300 people, has three watering holes and an artisan food industry that belies its size.

It also played an important role in New Zealand's labour movement, with the 1908 miners' strike a foundation stone in the formation of the Labour Party in 1916.

When RNZ visited, cost of living issues were top of mind ahead of the election.

Knock-off time at the pub, Formerly the Blackball Hilton, was a good time for a debate over a pint with the likes of local Jeremy Smail.

"This could take a long time if I was to drag it out," Smail said when asked what he was thinking about ahead of polling day.

"There seems to be quite a few nitwits in Parliament that don't seem to be able to sit on their seat for very long. They're always jumping up and down and running away. 

"Why can't we get some more reasonable people in Parliament, in my opinion? I think that's one of the most important things. They seem to be all about having a go at each other and not getting on with looking after the country."

Jeremy Smail isn't impressed by what he sees in parliament.

Jeremy Smail isn't impressed by what he sees in Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Smail was not confident this will change.

"I might be getting old and crusty, and I've got a few friends that are even older and crustier who will probably agree that some of these youngsters don't seem to have much nouse.

"I look at them as if they're still wearing nappies. I'm a bit bloody skeptical about who ends up in power."

Smail's mate at the bar Gerry Grieve was also skeptical.

"I sort of agree with Jeremy - and we're from both sides of the spectrum, opposite ways of looking at things," he said.

"Things have been mismanaged. There's no thought for people. It's more about who lives in Wellington in the Beehive and how you can best run your own agenda. Getting re-elected seems to be more important than running the country."

Gerry Grieve says West Coast's standards of living have slipped since the squeeze came on mining.

Gerry Grieve says West Coast's standards of living have slipped since the squeeze came on mining. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

These days Blackball, about 25 minutes' drive from Greymouth, attracts its fair share of tourists, many visiting the popular Paparoa Track. The tourism industry had replaced mining as the coast's most important, he said.

"We were nearly destroyed - the entire West Coast - when they shut down all the mining and they transferred high-paying productive jobs [to] low-paying tourism jobs.

"We copped that. Now the tourism jobs are online and we're improving, but we'll never improve to the state that we were prior to the shutdowns."

Smail said he knew of many miners who had moved to Australia. Though there was still a working mine near Blackball, which exported coal used in the production of steel.

"Steel's used for the frames of cars. They might be full of EV batteries, but they still need steel. They're not going to get steel out of a flax bush.

"We're not voting Green around here."

A view of Blackball.

Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

Formerly the Blackball Hilton co-owner Phil Lemmon has noticed cost of living increases biting.

"The spare money that people have got in their pockets is now going to the supermarkets and the service stations and The Warehouse. It isn't going to, 'Let's go out for dinner tonight', because they can't afford it. 

"Everything costs too much now. Even just driving to town costs $20 more than it did six months ago."

Lemmon gave an example from the hotel's kitchen. Six months ago it decided to run a steak night and price the meals at $18. Now, it had to be $22 just to cover costs.

Grieve said part of living in a smaller town was that people helped others if they could.

"We're fortunate around here that the average Joe Blow isn't like in Christchurch or Auckland or other cities. We've got a bit of land - quarter-acre Kiwis kind of thing, still in that archaic way.

"Most people have a few chickens. They're got a vegetable garden but, for sure, travel costs. We don't have basics here. We don't have all those city things that you have to have now."

Wayne Hanright.

Wayne Hanright is part of a growing artisan food industry in the town. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Outside in the setting sun was Wayne Hanright, a founder of gourmet condiment business Blackball Black Garlic.

"We go to markets and get our product out there. It's an end product. If you want to make a good gravy you take your roasties out and, half a teaspoon in there, and you make your gravy in a pan. Wonderful."

He was not too affected by cost of living increases, but said the business was.

"We haven't made that many sales lately, and being winter it's always a quiet time of year. 

"Cost of living for me - I always grow my own vegetables so I don't have to buy too much at the supermarket, except for meat and stuff like that. It hasn't hit me that hard."

The town is in the West Coast-Tasman electorate - New Zealand's largest - which stretches from the top of the South Island to Mt Aspiring National Park, an area of more than 32,000 square kilometres.

"[Labour MP] Damien O'Connor, he's our coast person. I don't really get a lot out of him.

"There's not a local party here. We could make the Republic of the West Coast. It would be great," Hanright said.

Jane Wells pulls a pint at The Blackball Inn.

Jane Wells pulls a pint at The Blackball Inn. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Down the road, The Blackball Inn owner Jane Wells was clear about the top election issue for her.

"The cost of living, of course - the cost of petrol. Blackball is 22km from Greymouth, where a lot of people work, so that's beginning to add up. The cost of groceries is on everybody's lips."

Most locals said Blackball was still a Labour town, but Wells was not happy with its performance in government.

"At the moment I'm angry with Labour because I think they need to really get the bull by the horns and put in a capital gains tax. I just don't see why they don't.

"Maybe Chris Hipkins thinks that that's going to win him the election, but I think he's turning a lot of people off by being so adamant about it. And I think that it's really significant that David Parker resigned his position [as revenue minister]."

The inn was alive and well, even playing host to an erotic art exhibition two weekends ago.

"I had people stay over that weekend. I covered a couple of [artworks] up because I thought they've come here to stay, they haven't come here to see an exhibition. But they all said they peeped anyway."

Back at Formerly the Hilton, co-owner Cynthia Robins said water was the number one election issue for her, followed by the "horrendous" cost of living hikes.

"I don't know what can be done, but it beggars belief how fast food prices have actually gone up, and it's really interesting to me that now there's going to be [up to] a $3 million fine for supermarkets who are not treating their suppliers correctly. 

"Ultimately it's the purchasers of that food that are going to be paying these fines. It's not the supermarkets. That's going to be another cost if they get it wrong."

And, what about the pub's name? Robins explains it came after the Hilton Hotel chain got wind of what was then the Blackball Hilton and threatened legal action.

After a back and forward the chain agreed to pay the then-owners in Blackball to make a change.

"They took that sum of money and with that they built the biggest septic tank they could so they could still shit on the bastards after all."