7 Jan 2020

Tony Kokshoorn: 20 years in local government

From Summer Times 2020/2021, 11:10 am on 7 January 2020

During his 15 years as the Mayor of Greymouth, Tony Kokshoorn dealt with storms that tore up roads, a struggling economy and of course the Pike River Mine disaster which claimed the lives of 29 men.

Never did he shy away from the responsibility of leadership, as he became the voice of the community through the hardship and the tragedy.

He stepped aside from the mayoralty in 2019, after 15 years in the job it was time for a break - but his legacy was recognised last week in the new year's honours list.

He was made an officer of the New Zealander Order of Merit for his services to local government and the Greymouth community.

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn.

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

He told Emile Donovan that when he started to see the impact of declining industry in the area in the early 1970s, he wanted to get involved in helping the West Coast to transition.

“I left school in 1970 at 15, you left school at that age in those days and got an apprenticeship, which I did.

“The West Coast had boomed for 100 odd years. And we were just entering a cycle where we had a recession, a recession from when I started in 1970 right through to the early 2000s.”

With its coal and timber milling in decline The West Coast faced depopulation, he says.

“Our biggest exports were our kids. I just felt that I wanted to be involved and try and turn that around.”

Along with industrial decline the coast faces constant challenge, he says.

“As soon as we get over one hurdle we have got another problem. And that is really what defines the West Coast character of the people. We are isolated because of the Southern Alps and with that we get high rainfall, we get cyclones, we get earthquakes.

“And the coal mining industry brings disasters along as well. So you've got to be prepared for adversity all the time.”

As the world changes so must the coast, he says.

“It has been a time of great change, technology, climate change issues now that we have to grapple with. The world is changing so quickly now with technology. And if we don't educate ourselves, we don't change direction to where we've been in the past with extractive industries we will be in trouble. So, we have to keep changing as best as we can.”

An over-reliance on a cluster of industries in the past exposed the region, he says, and that mistake must not be made again.

“We relied too heavily on coal and timber milling, you know, it was gold that brought people to the West Coast way back in the 1860s. But it was coal and timber milling that sustained us for 150 years.

“That is all coming to a head now. And we have to change, and we've been gone through that painful change for ten years. It's very tough on our people down here. For example, when housing prices have doubled all around New Zealand over the last 10 years, housing prices have retreated by 30 percent on the West Coast. That is very tough on the people here, because they rely on those assets in their old age.”

A lack of access to DOC land is hindering the Coast’s recovery, he says.

“The biggest problem we're facing at the moment is that the government is looking at having no more mining and associated industries on Department of Conservation land.

"Now that is it 86 percent of all land on the West Coast. And if they go through with SNA, which is significant natural areas, they’ll take up the non-access land to 92 percent – giving us only 8 percent to actually make a living off.”

Kokshoorn says the Resource Management Act will protect the environment while still allowing industries such as coal mining and rare earth mineral extraction to bring jobs to the region.

“If you can get a permit to actually go in and gold mine or get sphagnum moss or have a quarry on Department of Conservation land, you can guarantee the Resource Management Act will protect that land at the end of whatever you're doing.”

The Pike River mine disaster was a defining episode in his career, and he says, as the son of a miner, he knew all too well the impact it would have on West Coast families.

“Straight away being a coal miner’s son, and my wife's a coal miner's daughter, we knew the repercussions of an explosion in a coal mine. All our disasters over the years in coal mines have always been from a methane explosion. Methane’s a gas - you can't see it, you can't smell it, it only takes a single spark to explode and it does a lot of damage.

“So, when I was phoned by the police and they said 25 to 30 miners were missing in the Pike river Mine because of explosion, I knew exactly what I had to do then. That was to stand by the families - I knew there would be a lot of anxiety.

“And so I mobilised myself straight away and just stuck with the families all the way and it was extremely hard on everyone.”

The government could step in and help the West Coast regenerate, he says.

“One of the alternatives is why can't they, with ultra-fast broadband, why can't they outsource government departments?

“Outsource a lot of government departments down here to the West Coast - 200 jobs would make a big difference.”

Retirement hasn’t slowed him down, Kokshoorn says.

“I can't believe how busy I am. It's two to three months now, since I retired, I haven't had any spare hours in the day. I've got sore muscles all over me. I can't believe it, I’m a fit person normally, I do a lot of mountain biking, and I walk a lot.

“But I didn't realise there's another 200 muscles in my body that I won’t use sitting behind a desk and they're telling me every day, now that I’m out in the yard working around the place that - they are getting the last laugh!”

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