Pol­i­tics

The Gov­ern­ment’s big­gest pol­icy-quake is sure to push some but­tons.

New Zealand Listener - - CON­TENTS - Jane Clifton

It’s of­ten said there’s noth­ing so ex as an ex-MP – and that’s dou­ble for for­mer fi­nance min­is­ters. Steven Joyce has re­tired in the nick of time. ­Imag­ine re­main­ing in Par­lia­ment to see one’s most cher­ished cap­i­tal plans dis­mem­bered? To know that never again will any min­is­ter don hard hat and hi-vis to open a stonk­ing new high­way built in the name of in­no­va­tion and growth? To see his foes an­nounce a mas­sive new trans­port plan with no acronyms?

By cap­i­tal, we mean not just big bucks sunk into high­ways by Joyce but items de­serv­ing cap­i­tal let­ters. The cap­i­tal-est of cap­i­tal­i­sa­tions was Joyce’s flag­ship min­istry – of Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion and Em­ploy­ment – which is where the think­ing for eco­nomic growth strate­gies, with new high­ways as a key com­po­nent, was nur­tured by the pre­vi­ous Gov­ern­ment.

That min­istry is now to be de-amal­ga­mated, and not nec­es­sar­ily even to sep­a­rate min­istries of Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion and Em­ploy­ment but fur­ther spliced into even lesser en­ti­ties or parked in bits and bobs with ex­ist­ing min­istries.

And just when we’d learnt to pro­nounce it. Joyce fu­ri­ously staved off the ob­vi­ous, “Moby” – what min­is­ter would want his great­est cre­ation likened to a white whale that ul­ti­mately killed its ob­ses­sive pur­suer?

Ini­tially, he styled it as “Em­bee-ay-ee,” but per­haps con­scious of the risk of invit­ing a re­sponse of “Ee-ay-ee-ay-oh!”, he then set­tled on Em­bie. This re­mains con­fus­ing, as MBIE con­sti­tutes so much of the pub­lic sec­tor that when some­one says, as they do ap­prox­i­mately ev­ery work­ing minute, that they’re ex­pect­ing a re­port from MBIE, it’s quite a guess­ing game as to what is­sue it might be about.

Doubt­less there are still MBIE re­ports work­ing their way out of the sys­tem about the im­pacts of Joyce’s other crown jewel, the Roads of Na­tional Sig­nif­i­cance (RONS).

Too late. There will be no more of these un­der the new Gov­ern­ment. The ex­ist­ing ones are now Roads We Bit­terly Re­sent Hav­ing to Build, But the Tories Started So We Have to Fin­ish. All other de­sired ma­jor new routes are hence down­graded to Roads We Might Get Around To, But Not Be­fore Buses, Light Rail, Walk­ing and Cy­cle­ways and Me­dian Bar­ri­ers. Acronymise that.

The Gov­ern­ment’s new trans­port pol­icy stalls de­vel­op­ment of new ma­jor ar­te­rial routes in­def­i­nitely be­fore the twin bol­lards of cli­mate change obli­ga­tions and the un­will­ing­ness of driv­ers to pay di­rectly for in­fra­struc­ture. This is the big­gest pol­icy-quake since the change of Gov­ern­ment and the first sign that the Greens are not just a Cin­derella

part­ner.

GOOD­BYE, PO­LIT­I­CAL OR­THO­DOX­IES

As­so­ciate Trans­port Min­is­ter Julie Anne Gen­ter is that most in­con­ve­nient of per­son­ages to a Cabi­net, a per­son who of­fi­cially knows what she’s talk­ing about. She has a mas­ter’s de­gree in plan­ning, and road­ing and traf­fic are her spe­cial­ity. De­spite this, she has been let loose on the Gov­ern­ment’s trans­port pol­icy and the re­sult

Just the phrases “light rail for Auck­land” and “more cy­cle­ways” can start a fight in an empty room these days.

is a ma­jor re­ori­en­ta­tion to­wards road safety and car­bon-free al­ter­na­tives.

In this, she has pos­i­tively Humveed through a slew of po­lit­i­cal or­tho­dox­ies, chiefly that gov­ern­ments can’t get away with de­lib­er­ately caus­ing peo­ple to pay lots more for sta­ple items such as petrol and that it’s folly to prod the great God in­fla­tion in case He wakes up.

The pro­posal is to cut 11% of cur­rent spend­ing on state high­ways and claw out $4 bil­lion – just for starters – for Auck­land’s light rail. Pub­lic trans­port, mean­while – buses, bikes, trains, foot­paths – will get nearly

50% more of the to­tal trans­port bud­get.

At the risk of damp­en­ing the me­dia-stoked panic over the 12-cents-per-litre petrol tax hike – make that 20 cents for Auck­lan­ders – all this hap­pens over 10 years, not

in one great Old Tes­ta­ment smit­ing.

But it’s what the fo­cus-group an­a­lysts would call a but­ton-pusher. Just the phrases “light rail for Auck­land” and “more cy­cle­ways” can start a fight in an empty room these days. Also in­cluded in the an­nounce­ment is a sug­ges­tion that state high­ways with­out me­dian bar­ri­ers have their speed lim­its re­duced to 70km/h. That’s cer­tainly a sport­ing way to off­set the vote-buy­ing taint around the Provin­cial Growth Fund. Adding cu­mu­la­tive hours to rural and provin­cial peo­ple’s travel would also level the play­ing field with re­spect to Auck­land’s com­muter con­ges­tion.

Chances are that pro­posal will be qui­etly ig­nored – not least be­cause of the cost it would pile onto com­mer­cial road trans­port and hence in­fla­tion.

As it is, the new petrol im­posts, how­ever grad­ual, will feed new costs through the whole econ­omy. That – and the po­lit­i­cal un­palata­bil­ity of new im­posts – is why the pre­vi­ous Gov­ern­ment stomped on any sug­ges­tion of re­gional taxes tied to in­fra­struc­ture, how­ever handy the rev­enue.

The new trans­port strat­egy in­ten­si­fies ques­tions about the Gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to coun­te­nance pub­lic-pri­vate sec­tor part­ner­ships (PPPs) for build­ing in­fra­struc­ture. The of­fi­cial line is that over­seas, PPPs have too of­ten failed to de­liver, pro­vid­ing in­flex­i­ble struc­tures and dis­pro­por­tion­ate on­go­ing costs. The Op­po­si­tion, which in Gov­ern­ment was com­mit­ted to a PPP-rich fu­ture, says the ob­jec­tion is purely ide­o­log­i­cal.

HOS­PI­TAL PASS THE PAR­CEL

As chance would have it, hos­pi­tal build­ing – Na­tional’s most prized PPP strat­egy – has loomed like a bar­rage bal­loon this week. Con­fir­ma­tion that the walls of Mid­dle­more Hos­pi­tal are not just mouldy but run­ning with sewage has plunged Par­lia­ment into a te­dious par­lour game of who knew what when. That pre­vi­ous Health Min­is­ter Jonathan Cole­man in­sists he can­not re­call be­ing told about what ap­par­ently even the temp­ing mail clerk knew the pre­cise E coli count of has made this an es­pe­cially handy de­flec­tion for the Gov­ern­ment. But there’s a limit to how long a new Gov­ern­ment can shel­ter be­hind the fail­ings of its pre­de­ces­sor.

It has bel­lied up to di­rect levy­ing to fund its trans­port re­ori­en­ta­tion. But how can it fund what even Na­tional’s new lead­er­ship has con­ceded are some trou­bling gaps in health? One an­swer is that de­con­se­crat­ing Joyce’s acronyms saves a poul­tice. Ac­cord­ing to Trans­port Min­is­ter Phil Twyford’s cal­cu­la­tions, for just half the cost of the pre­vi­ous Gov­ern­ment’s East West Link across Auck­land, we could build a ver­i­ta­ble Hadrian’s Wall down the mid­dle of ev­ery kilo­me­tre of state high­way in the coun­try.

It may not be pitched in shouty up­per-case, but the doc­u­ment humbly known as “the draft 10-year trans­port plan” is by way of be­ing what Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Min­is­ter would sor­row­fully la­bel “coura­geous”.

Adding hours to rural and provin­cial peo­ple’s travel would also level the play­ing field with re­spect to Auck­land’s com­muter con­ges­tion.

Julie Anne Gen­ter: that most in­con­ve­nient of per­son­ages to a Cabi­net.

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