The great Waiheke Island ferry rort

Commute week: Statistics released under official information legislation reveal a tiny group of 100 Supergold card holders hoover up over $200,000 worth of free trips to Waiheke Island every year.

If you were looking out at a map of New Zealand and wondering where its most privileged citizens lived, it’s likely that Waiheke would be very close to the top of the list. The island has undergone a transformation in recent decades, from an environmentally minded refuge from the pace of Auckland, to the city’s most exclusive suburb, dotted with beaches and luxury baches, all just a breezy ferry ride away.

It boasts a number of Auckland’s most expensive restaurants, often attached to vineyards, and its real estate market regularly pushes out news like that which came this past weekend, of a house with a cinema alongside its indoor swimming pool, which changed hands for a cool $20m. Even the protests are posh.

There remain a number of island residents who’ve lived there for decades and watch its gentrification in horror, but they’re now out-muscled, if not outnumbered, by the new arrivals. Who tend to be white, wealthy – and greyer: the 2013 census revealed a typical Island resident is, at 45, a full decade older than the average Aucklander.

In fact 27% are over 60 – versus 16% for Auckland as a whole, with most eligible for NZ Superannuation, and its glittering jewel, the Supergold card. Winston Peters’ bauble from the 2005 coalition agreement allows for discounts on many items, along with free public transport for its 600,000 holders.

For much of the country this is busses and trains, often limited to off-peak times and thus a very defensible effort to allow older people to get around when the load on transport networks is relatively low. In Auckland though, after 9am, it means ferries too – including the 23 kilometre trip from the city’s Downtown Ferry Terminal to Matiatia wharf in Oneroa.

This has created a quite extraordinary situation in which one of the country’s prettiest and priciest commutes, from one of the most expensive suburbs in the country, costs a select group of its users exactly nothing.

Which is not to say that it’s free. You and I and every other taxpayer in country contribute as much as $1.9m a year – from a total Supergold national travel budget of $28m – to this one narrow trip.

I wondered exactly how far that money went – how many people benefited from it – and so sent an official information request to Auckland Transport, which eventually released some specific information, covering less than two years – the period since July 2016, when the HOP card meant the data was accessible.

It revealed just how concentrated the benefits of this scheme are: the data showed that the top 1000 users of the scheme used almost $1.9m in the 22 months to May 2018 – an average total of over $1,800 per pensioner, and over half of total payments to ferry operators.

The top 100 users have an even more shocking slice – they have claimed over $400,000 in free rides in less than two years: an average of $4,087 each.

The cost of an adult return fare to Waiheke is $38, and there is no discount for HOP card users or seniors who don’t hold a Supergold card. The upshot is that the 100 most frequent users of the service are using over 10% of the total budget for ferry travel to Waiheke.

To use the ferry that frequently you’re not taking day trips, or even holidaying there: you’re commuting. It’s the equivalent of over 100 one way trips a year – a usage rate which would be near impossible to achieve unless you were working on the mainland and living on the island.

There’s a reason that lifestyle – living and playing on an island paradise, working in the city – is a subset of the archetypal Kiwi dream. It’s because most of us can’t think of many better ways to live. And, as a result, it’s very costly: houses on the island average well over $1m, and the costs of transport render it impossible for all but those in very well-paying jobs.

To put it another way – to put it as bluntly as I can: the Waiheke ferry’s inclusion in the Supergold card’s transport scheme represents an immense subsidy to a tiny group of people, who are almost by definition amongst the most wealthy and privileged group of New Zealanders you could assemble.

Under any circumstances, such a wealth transfer would be unjustifiable. In this current New Zealand – with its homelessness, its child poverty, its infrastructure deficits and multi-stranded health crises – it seems flat out immoral.

The inequity certainly screamed out at Steven Joyce in 2010, when he announced a review of the service, citing the extraordinary costs of the Waiheke scheme. Within days lobbying by Grey Power and NZ First had him in full retreat, and, like most things to do with Super, it has been largely left alone ever since.

And yet the lunacy remains. The whole superannuation system is riddled with absurdities – our Deputy PM is both its strongest defender, and a man who collects his Super while also earning well over $300,000 a year. Modern medicine means the age at which Super kicks in is no longer near the end of one’s life, but the start of a third act. It’s likely that many of those entering the Superannuation zone now will live for almost as long as they worked. While their children donate more and more each year to what is already the budget’s single biggest line item.

Thanks to the brutally effective politics of Grey Power, Peters and NZ First, the distribution of superannuation itself remains sacrosanct. And to be fair, the arguments around its intersection with Māori and manual workers, for example, are complex.

Those $38 return trips to Waiheke, though, are almost entirely uncomplicated. Over half the benefit of this scheme is concentrated in the hands of 1,000 people, a large chunk of whom will inevitably be amongst New Zealand’s most privileged. At least 100 of them likely use it as free trip to or from work. Given the myriad issues this country faces, and what it has had to delay or abandon due to cost, it seems hard to justify continuing to lavish so much on those who need it the least.

Read more of Commute Week here 


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