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