The Jacindatrain arrived in Auckland yesterday, bringing with it the news that Labour has a radically different transport policy from National. Simon Wilson was there to sample the excitement.
“Come and have a beer with me,” said Jacinda Ardern at the end of her election rally at Karanga Plaza in the Wynyard Quarter. She never got that beer. Someone put a single-malt whisky in her hand when she arrived at the bar, but she left it on the table with all the other drinks people bought her. And then she stood there for an hour, only a few steps past the bar’s entrance, as excited fans swirled around, pressed close for selfies and quick eager chats, the grin just absolutely positively relentless. She laughed at everything and finally she said, still grinning, “You know what, I’m exhausted.” And she slipped away.
Everyone feels they can touch Jacinda, so they do. Put their hands on her, rub shoulders, hugs. This is not common for a politician.
But then, none of it is common. This is the kind of admiration John Key used to get – you’d see it in the malls when he went for a wander. It’s the kind of adoration Winston gets now. David Lange used to get it and so did Norman Kirk. That’s really going back. Helen Clark got some of it as PM and gets more of it now.
The occasion was the announcement of Labour’s Auckland transport policy. An event that was planned well before she became leader and which would have been, in more ordinary circumstances, an occasion for a few media, a few party faithful and a few activists. You would have been able to fit everyone in a container and bolt the door. Jacinda got about 500.
She got Robyn Malcolm, too, as the warmup act. That was a surprise: Malcolm is chain-yourself-to-the-ramparts Green Party. She does warm ups for their campaign events. But she’s jumped on the Jacinda Train now. They didn’t chase her; she rang them and asked if she could do it.
“I want to be clear,” Malcolm told the crowd. “I support the Greens. And I thoroughly support Labour.” She said, “I just want to try something, see how it sounds. Prime Minister Ardern.” That got a relentlessly positive roar.
Robyn Malcolm, like the rest of us, has only one party vote and presumably she will still give it to the Greens. Is her position inherently contradictory? Not really. Her presence at that rally echoed what Green Party co-leader James Shaw said earlier in the week: a vote for the Greens is a vote for Jacinda Ardern as PM. And Malcolm wasn’t alone. There were many Greens supporters in the crowd yesterday afternoon, and at least one Green MP.
Relentless positivity and being “youth-adjacent” (her phrase) and a woman are not the only differences Ardern is stamping on her party campaign. She began by mihi-ing to Ngarimu Blair from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, who was there with his daughter, standing quietly to the side. Blair is to the iwi what Ardern is to the party: a next-gen leader getting ready to shake it all about.
John Tamihere was there, too – it feels like a long time since he showed up to a Labour Party event like this. MP Aupito William Sio brought a big crew from Māngere. Penny Bright was there, the left-wing radical. Protesting, of course, about private company involvement in public transport, but still: she felt the need to turn up. A lot of young people, and a lot of youth-adjacent-adjacent people too. Missing, on the other hand, were some of the higher profile Auckland leaders of Labour’s affiliated unions. That was a bit of a surprise.
All aboard the Jacindatrain, or let’s say mostly all. It’s the Let’s Do This train, the revivalist train, the laugh-while-you-change-the-world train. Back on Tuesday, at her first press conference as leader, Ardern had been asked whether she’d be able to handle a coalition with two other strong parties, and she said, without hesitation, “You want to tell me why you think I can’t do that?”
It felt like a defining moment: quick-witted, politically pointed and a warning, wrapped in that apparently relaxed grin, that she’s not going to put up with your shit.
The Jacindatrain is a modern tram, light rail, swish, smart, and it will run on a grass-covered route (just guessing about that: grass between and alongside the tracks is the new norm for light rail in many cities overseas), all the way from Wynyard Quarter, up Queen St, down Dominion Rd and out to the airport. And all the way in from the west; also all the way down from the North Shore; and with a dedicated busway from Howick in the east, connecting all points to the centre and the airport. A rapid transit network for the city.
As Ardern said, Labour was signing up to the Congestion Free Network 2.0. “It’s magnificent,” she said, “and we’re doing it.” She acknowledged the work of Greater Auckland, Generation Zero, Cycle Auckland and others in creating the CFN, and it was easy to spot the activists and policy wonks from those groups in the crowd: they were the ones whose chests all started to burst with pride.
Robyn Malcolm would have been happy: Labour’s transport policy is essentially the same as the Greens’, especially in Auckland. Though it’s a moot point whether the Greens themselves will be completely happy that Labour has commandeered their position.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this. There are many policy areas where the differences between centre-left and centre-right are not that big – but transport is not one of them. Labour and the Greens promise a radically different focus: rail-based public transport will become the key to freeing congestion on the roads and some of it will be funded by a regional fuel tax in Auckland.
National does promise to strengthen the rail system, but it is not refocusing. It will build more roads, it will not introduce new funding mechanisms anytime soon and it will keep rapid transit (especially to the airport and from the Shore) on the slow track.
Oddly, one of National’s transport projects to receive earlier funding than planned is electrification of the line from Papakura to Pukekohe. Currently, you have to change trains and use diesel on that part of the route. Extending the electric service is a good policy, but it comes just a couple of weeks after the Auckland Council, in despair at funding delays, decided to buy electric trains with special battery units for Auckland Transport to run on the route. Why didn’t the government tell the council it intended to electrify the line? The most obvious answer is that a couple of weeks ago it didn’t intend to do that. Make no mistake, the government is rethinking Auckland transport. (As for those battery trains, the government now says they can run to Pokeno – but that’s in the Waikato and not the responsibility of Auckland Transport.)
National’s single promise to speed up rapid transit projects is a dedicated Northwest Busway. But Labour has said it will skip the bus option and go straight to light rail on the same route. Build it once, not twice. As for the East-West Link, Labour will subject it to “evidence-based research” because, said Ardern, “we do not believe at this point that it has a business case”. Ardern says Labour’s plans will cost $15 billion, which is $2 billion more than National’s.
She did a “standup” with media when the rally ended: all the journalists and cameras gathered round and she answered questions. Lloyd Burr from Newshub asked her, “Isn’t it kind of terrifying?”
He meant, the whole process of being at the heart of a popular surge, of possibly being weeks away from forming a government. The sudden speed of that Jacindatrain. She laughed at him too.
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