Coronavirus: Shane Jones eager to help regions from COVID-19 onslaught

With regional economies and industry needing to rescued from the wrath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shane Jones is up for the challenge, including promising to find a "laxative" for Government departments suffering "constipation".

The global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has forced the closure of global trade and travel routes, disrupting Kiwi producers, decimating the international tourism market and putting pressure on regional economies. 

While New Zealand could be out of its nationwide lockdown in two weeks, border controls will likely remain for many more months to come, meaning domestic tourism and production will have to be prioritised. Unemployment is also set to skyrocket and officials will be looking for economically-stable industries to pick up the load.

Jones, the minister in charge of Regional Economic Development, Forestry and Infrastructure, finds himself at the centre of that agenda. 

He told The AM Show his three focuses were repurposing the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), rolling out mega infrastructure projects and ensuring New Zealand has a forestry sector that "favours domestic production, domestic manufacturing, domestic employment and not too much of a diversion of sending all of our logs overseas and not having enough raw material to create jobs in New Zealand."

Jones said that's going to require cutting through red tape and looking at new ways to incentivise employment. He said ministers were "identifying a new route where consents can be allocated".

"Yesterday's logic is not going to cut it for today's turbulence and challenges," the minister told The AM Show.

"We have got the opportunity to do it. As Machiavelli said, don't squander a good opportunity. Experience only teaches those who are teachable, and I am infinitely capable of continuing to learn, either through the PGF or with my colleagues, through simplifying the RMA."

He said he has about $700-$800 million to work with through the PGF.

"A lot of the dough was given to other Government departments. They, however, have suffered constipation. I realise there is a lot of changing circumstances and people will be fearful, but I think us politicians, especially the more pro-industry ones, I have been given a job by the Prime Minister to find ways to offer a laxative to those parts of the bureaucracy, to get the money out the door, and I'll be good for it."

On Tuesday, he confirmed work was underway to repurpose money from the PGF.

"If Provincial Growth Fund money is not going out the door through conventional projects then it needs to be repurposed for other initiatives," he said.

"Ministers will soon consider whether unallocated funds should be redirected into regional projects which will have an almost immediate impact in line with the Government’s COVID-19 economic response. Projects that can provide initial economic support over the next two to six months and aid economic recovery longer term will be prioritised."

Jones and Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford have already said they are on the lookout for large infrastructure projects that can be begun as soon as the construction workforce can return to their jobs.

The Government has also put aside $100 million to help with the redeployment of workers affected by the sharp economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The horticulture industry is one sector crying out for workers. Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says it needs 20,000 people to help during the peak of harvest.