Queenstown’s popular $2 bus network’s being shackled by a shortage of drivers, amid calls the resort should be declared a “special case” for overseas workers.

Otago Regional Council’s public transport boss Julian Phillips confirms to Mountain Scene they’ve signed off on the new Lake Hayes/Shotover Country rush-hour express.

But it can’t operate until there are more drivers – and recruitment is posing “a significant challenge”.

Queenstown Chamber of Commerce boss Anna Mickell believes an immigration “debacle” is a major part of the problem.

She says overseas workers need a P-endorsement on their driver’s license to get a driver’s work visa – but they can’t get the P-endorsement until they’ve got their visa.

Further, Mickell says, next August immigration rules mean some drivers will have no choice but to leave New Zealand.

That’s because they’re classified as “lower-skilled” and have had three 12-month visas.

Unless they earn $25.50 an hour, they’ll need to leave NZ for a 12-month stand-down.

Mickell says their classification and pay rates need to change given Queenstown’s council declared a climate emergency, and the focus on public and active transport in its draft climate action plan.

“The labour force issues with buses is the biggest single issue impacting on improving our bus transport around Queenstown at the moment –  it’s not just affecting public buses, it affects both the commercial and the public fleet.

“I really do think this is the single most important thing that Queenstown’s got to sort out.

“It’s critical.”

She believes the situation’s being exacerbated by pay rates.

But ORC contractor Ritchies’ boss Andrew Ritchie doesn’t think that’s the issue.

“I’m not sure that [pay rises] will fix the problem,” he says. “It’s just Queenstown.”

He says it’s the same in Auckland, where he argues it’s almost cheaper to live.

He lays the blame for the driver shortage directly at the feet of politicians and says the government “think they know best”.

“They don’t and we’ve got a big problem looming.”

Ritchie says there are about 60 drivers on Queenstown’s Orbus network and there’s an “alarming number” on work visas.

They’re being punished by regulations, as are a huge number of others in a variety of industries in the Wakatipu, he says.

“It’s certainly an issue and everyone you speak to down there’s got the same problem.

“I think it’s just unfair on the people that have come in from overseas and are prepared to do the work.

“I actually think Queenstown should be given a special status [and] exemption from a lot of the new rules coming.

“It’s a crucial part of the New Zealand infrastructure, it would be a simple thing to do, really.”

Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker says he’s met bus drivers to see how he can help, and agrees Queenstown’s a “unique case”.

He’s lobbied for an immigration specialist for Queenstown for a while now, but will be surprised if the government “even looks at it”.

“This government is incompetent and incapable of delivering.”

But Transport Minister Phil Twyford says the government’s set up a group, including reps from bus companies, councils and unions, to look at the driver shortage and tackle long-term issues in the industry.

“We believe that wages and conditions of drivers have been driven down by the previous government’s PTOM [public transport operating model] – that’s why we are doing a review which will finish mid-next year.”