The bitterly cold weather of last week has been challenging. It disrupted our communities, closing schools and roads, and causing flights to be cancelled.
It hit our rural communities hard at what is the busiest time of the year for our farmers who keep the economy ticking over.
Dairy farmers had to dump milk because the tankers could not get through. And dairy farmers, along with sheep farmers who are trying to keep ewes in good condition for lambing, have the added worry of possible pasture damage and stock condition.
The good news is that as temperatures warm up it feels like spring is just around the corner.
Southern farmers are well aware that the rural sector is leading the way in the nation's growth. Last week, the National Bank's quarterly regional trends survey showed that Southland had a 2.1 per cent rise in economic activity in the June quarter.
According to the survey this made Southland the fastest - growing region in the country for the first time since 2003, when the province had enjoyed New Zealand's fastest growth for three years from 2000. And the region's unemployment figures have fallen from 5.1 per cent last December to 3.5 per cent, which is the lowest in the country.
The Southland Stags have continued to bring pride and passion back to Southland rugby with their serious challenge and win against Canterbury to bring the Ranfurly Shield home. It's fantastic to see the mood of the electorate change when we win the shield.
I pay special tribute to the Southland Stags team who work hard both on and off the paddock.
I would like to thank all who took the time to complete and return my recent survey. I've had many returns, and they are still arriving in the mailbox, giving me a good snapshot of issues in our area.
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It's always great to get out and about in the Electorate to catch up with constituents.
After many challenges with the development, the long awaited completion and opening of Hilton Queenstown was celebrated recently. Having the Prime Minister there to formally open the hotel, then to declare the Queenstown Winter Festival open was a boost to the community as they awaited the first snowfall. I visited the temporary ice skating rink at the Queenstown Winter Festival which was an opportunity to meet with Simon Green the Winter Festival director.
The PM hosted a breakfast at the Hilton Queenstown, before we headed to morning tea at Nokomai Station. It was good to get the Prime Minister into real farming country. You get to hear the grassroots issues by talking to the workers and owners of the stations. It was great to meet local school students who came out to greet the Prime Minister at Mossburn and Winton. The branches did a great job of hosting these events.
At Telford Rural Polytechnic a function was held to unveil a plaque to mark its merger with Lincoln University. Lincoln University is certainly making its mark in the South with a visit from Vice-Chancellor Roger Field who joined the Prime Minister and me at Nokomai Station last month, along with a group of Southland students.
Celebrating 75 years
It was great to catch up with people at the National Party Annual Conference in Wellington and celebrate 75 years since the party was founded.
The Prime Minister announced the first of National's changes to reduce long-term benefit dependency. In our first step we are focusing on young people.
We're changing the way we support 16- and 17-year-olds who are not in education, training or work. Schools will be required to tell us when 16- and 17-year-olds leave during the year. That means we'll actually know who the at-risk young people in our communities are.
We'll then fund third-party organisations such as NGOs and private providers to support and mentor these kids. We're also boosting the number of places in training programmes such as the Youth Guarantee and Trades Academies.
We're taking a more hands-on approach to young people on benefits, with the exception of those on the Invalid's Benefit. We're going to provide intensive case-management and mentoring for these vulnerable young people. We're going to help them manage their money within their budget. And we're going to make sure they attend budgeting or parenting programmes - and get into education, training or work.
Reducing our vulnerability to global uncertainty
National has taken a number of steps over the past three years to make New Zealand less vulnerable in these times of global uncertainty.
Our responsible decisions to get debt under control and return to surplus faster include reprioritising $4 billion of spending over four years in our first two Budgets. Further to this we reprioritised $5.2 billion of spending in Budget 2011 and we are requiring the state sector to find almost $1 billion in savings over three years to go towards improving frontline public services and reducing debt.
In our first Budget, we suspended payments to the NZ Super Fund, as it made no sense for taxpayers to borrow to invest on risky world share markets. And we're making changes to KiwiSaver, Working for Families, and student loans so they are better targeted, sustainable into the future, and reduce the need for extra borrowing.
At a time when financial markets have no appetite for countries wanting to borrow more, New Zealand has an opportunity over the next few years to build on solid foundations for faster growth and more jobs.
Government launches Green Paper on Vulnerable Children
Every year an average of 10 New Zealand children die at the hands of those closest to them. Last year there were 21,000 substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect. This has got to stop.
The Government has released the first Green Paper in 14 years, focusing on these vulnerable children. A Green Paper is about testing ideas with the public before making decisions. The document raises some complex issues, including mandatory reporting of child abuse, information sharing between agencies, prioritising services for vulnerable children and their parents, tracking children from birth, and when the government should intervene with families.
Public submissions are open until 28 February 2012 and we would welcome your input. Once submissions have been received, a White Paper will be released outlining a Children's Action Plan. Too many children are being hurt, abused and neglected but we can change this, and now is the time to act.
In the South people remain connected to extended family and we have good sensible role models and support which provides safety mechanisms that makes it a safer place to bring up children.
Tougher rules for non-bank finance firms
National has taken another step in lifting investor confidence in our financial institutions.
Legislation to further tighten the rules for non-bank deposit takers (NBDTs) passed its first reading recently.
The Non-Bank Deposit Takers Bill puts in place licensing requirements and strengthens the Reserve Bank's powers, including the power to remove directors.
From 2006, deposits of about $8.6 billion were put at risk by finance industry failures. The bill is part of a suite of measures designed to lift investor confidence in our finance sector and capital markets - we've established the Financial Markets Authority, put in place a new regime for financial advisers, required licensing of trustees and auditors and strengthened disclosure requirements.
Offender levy collects nearly double its projection in first year
National's $50 offender levy has been more successful than projected. The levy has collected $3.7 million in its first year, nearly double its forecast of $2 million. The offender levy was introduced to fund more services for victims.
At time of sentencing all convicted offenders must pay the levy. This is collected after reparation and before fines, and is in addition to any sentence or court order.
The levy now funds 13 entitlements and services for victims of serious crime, including court attendance grants, counselling, travel, accommodation, and childcare assistance, homicide support, and funeral grants.
National has been able to introduce five additional services for victims of crimes because the levy is being collected more quickly than expected.
Later this year the Victims of Crime Reform Bill will be introduced to Parliament and proposals announced around alternative trial processes for child witnesses. These services and further reforms highlight the National-led Government's commitment to put victims at the centre of the criminal justice system. Freedom Camping Bill passed into law
New laws to better manage freedom camping will take effect before the Rugby World Cup. Freedom camping is an important part of our tourism industry and is a great Kiwi tradition.
Freedom campers have doubled over the past decade, and the Freedom Camping Bill passed this month targets irresponsible campers who spoil our most iconic areas with human waste and litter.
The law gives councils the practical tools to control freedom camping, including introducing instant fines. Councils have been asking for greater clarity for years, and this law allows councils to define where people can freedom camp, where they can camp subject to self-containment, and where they cannot.
This is a pragmatic response that will better protect public health, our iconic spots, and New Zealand's clean, green brand.
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