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The legacy of Winston Peters and the future of Auckland’s port

If bullshit and bluster could make the trains run, Northland would be full of railroads. Still, when politicians gathered in Whangārei on Monday night, they did have some good things to say, writes Simon Wilson, who was up on the stage alongside them.

“We need to be doing a lot more large joints in Northland,” said Shane Reti, who is a medical practitioner and the National MP for Whangārei. He meant hips and knees.

“Did you really just say that?” said Labour’s David Parker.

“I know what you’re thinking about and you need to be with the Green Party,” said Reti.

“Wait, what?” said the Greens’ Julie-Anne Genter.

Moving Auckland’s port operations to Whangārei will “save billions and billions and billions”, said Winston Peters, who is MP for Northland as well as leader of NZ First.

“This man is like Donald Trump!” said Genter, pointing at Peters.

You hear about the winterless north but it was fucking freezing in Whangārei on Monday night. Unless you were in the theatre at Forum North, that is, where everyone was having a lot of fun.

Photo: Simon Wilson

Chris Leitch was there. The “doyen of activism”, according to Albie Barr, the rail advocate who organised the debate. Leitch is local colour, a social crediter from way back, one of those perennial candidates who are stuck to the wall of democracy. The Reserve Bank could fund everything, I think he was saying. Just print the money. Nobody bothered to argue.

Shane Jones, Matua Shane, the local boy who behaves like someone’s told him he’s an oracle, set out the core NZ First proposition: to “relocate the industry and jobs and development out of Auckland into Northport”. Move the cars, then the mixed goods trade, then the containers, off the Waitemata and up to Marsden Point, the site of Whangārei’s deep water port, known as Northport. Critical to the whole process: new railways to make it work. Also critical to the process: a strategy for freight, transport and ports in the upper North Island. And that strategy has to come from central government. If it comes out of Auckland, it will, naturally enough, favour Auckland.

Top of NZ First’s agenda: a Northport Development Bill. “That bill,” said Jones, “is going to be a legacy project.”

This is what Winston Peters and co are really all about. Not immigrant baiting and fulminating against the dunderheads in all the other parties, the “chardonnay-sipping, finger-pointing” media, the seagulls on the beach. Those things are just election candy: attention getters and vote getters. Winston Peters is determined to revitalise the regions and Northland is his flagship.

And this is why Shane Jones is so important to him: Peters is too old now to drive it through. He’s 72 and slowing down – commentators of all stripes have noticed it. He’s the leader and he’ll remain the figurehead, and undoubtedly, for as long as he can, he’ll be the mastermind too. But the project will take longer than whatever time he has left in parliament and it will take more energy than he has left.

Small problem there, of course. Shane Jones, the heir apparent, is not noticeably energetic himself. He’s a 58-year-old who behaves like an 80-year-old.

Oh well. Perhaps he’ll get a new lease of life.

Marsden Point near Whangārei: the site of Auckland’s new port? (Photo Simon Wilson)

The project has a few other problems and they’re much more significant. For one, Auckland, as in Auckland Inc, the business community, will not let its port go without a fight. They’re bigger and uglier than Peters and Jones, there’s more of them and they have better friends in Wellington.

For another, it’s not like turning Northport into the upper North Island’s number-one port is just a matter of adding a railway. It’s a major rebuild, including dredging. It’s a major refocus of all the other infrastructure and logistics. It’s a really big thing, and we, the country, are a bit scared of them.

Most of all, though, in the economic and logistical terms by which these things are usually judged, it doesn’t make sense. The rail costs alone are around $3 billion. The port would serve half the entire population of New Zealand and those people don’t live in Northland: they’re in the golden triangle bound by Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. There’s an internationally accepted convention that your port should not be further than 100km from your city, and Northport is closer to 200km away from Auckland.

But here’s the thing. All parties pay at least lip service to regional development. Some – not just NZ First but also Labour, the Māori Party and the Greens – are very keen to make it happen. And if that’s going to mean anything useful, it has to mean a strategy to prioritise away from Auckland. And actually, whatever Auckland Inc has to say about it, isn’t that what most Aucklanders want too? For us to find meaningful ways to make the provinces more appealing, to slow the ever-rising flood of people who want to come and live in the clogged-up city?

Whangārei’s sitting National MP Shane Reti, Dr Shane Reti “out of Harvard in Dubai”, did his best to put up a fight. He’s a fleshy man with pursed lips who squints at you through his glasses, and he had facts and figures to burn. He reeled off lists of companies that he said wouldn’t use rail freight. He didn’t see any future in rail, he did not believe it could ever be a foundation for regional regeneration. He wasn’t one of those local MPs who do their best to change their party’s line. He was the party line. He got some respect for that, but mainly he got a lot of booing and catcalling from the audience and, from the other candidates, calculated displays of sheer exasperated disbelief.

His facts and stats didn’t all add up. He said the government’s Special Housing Areas in Auckland “speed up house building”, when even construction minister Nick Smith has conceded half of them haven’t been built in, because they’ve been used as land banks for the enrichment of property speculators.

Some men sitting at a table in Whangārei. Screen grab: Newshub

Labour’s Tony Savage, a big man with a jowly, bristly face, said he wanted to be the local MP who advocated for the locals. A Labour government will be good for New Zealand, he suggested, but if “you want it to be good for Whangārei and Northland, you need me in there.” For emphasis, he stabbed the lectern several times with his finger. He might get in on the list anyway, but nothing’s certain this election, including all the things that used to be certain yesterday.

Savage ran the line that sometimes works for some politicians. The truth is not in the statistics, it’s in how you feel. “How you feel about your wages is more important than the numbers the government feeds you.”

What he was feeling his way into was the idea that sure, low inflation, high employment and expanding job growth make many people feel pretty good, but wage growth is very low. Everyone who remembers small but regular annual wage increments, and knows that for the last few years their employer has just stopped paying them – they feel let down. Everyone who knows they’ve got a job but they’re still dirt poor, or they’ve got two jobs but they know they’ll never be able to afford a house, they feel let down. Everyone who knows there are more beggars on the streets than there used to be, more stories of people who cannot find a home at all, they feel let down too. These were the people’s feelings, but the experience of them was very real.

Ash Holwell! The Greens candidate was a scrawny little white kid in a lineup of big beefy Maori men. He was the only one to do a mihi. He made a fiery speech, where the others, taking their cue from Shane Jones, had been more like oh dear we’re all still here well never mind.

Shane Jones. He oozes exasperation, garnished with witticisms, he’s like a collapsed pavlova with a few strawberries on top. “That is not a worthy question,” he said, the first time anyone asked him anything. Echoing his complaint at The Spinoff debate the week before, which he still moans about to anyone who will listen. You got the impression he was going to say it whatever he was asked.

Something else about Northland. The road is a disgrace. Pot-holed and unforgiving for long stretches, it beggars belief that Warkworth to Whangārei is part of State Highway 1. It’s in worse condition that the back roads of the Waikato. If you want a metaphor for the disdain with which the powerbrokers of government view Northland, that road is it. Actually, it’s also an indicator of the damage that trucks to do roads and a measure of the inability of local MPs to make a difference.

Many people, including the National Party and Winston Peters, believe there should be a “four-lane highway” all the way to Whangārei. In fact, for basic safety reasons if nothing else, they have a far cheaper and far more urgent need: regular maintenance of the road they’ve already got.

After the local MPs came the national figures: Winston! Julie-Anne Genter! David Parker! Shane Reti again! Because transport minister Simon Bridges had declined to appear.

Genter was game, launching into a spirited defence of Greens policies, but her support crew in the crowd was not the whoop and holler type and no one else was interested.

Reti was busy rewriting the National Party mantra that served them so well for nine years: “Our prime minister needs to be someone tested under the severest national disasters,” he said. “Disasters like the earthquakes of Canterbury and Kaikoura.”

But wasn’t John Key the PM during all of those earthquakes?

“Well yes he was,” said Reti, “but the deputy prime minister was incredibly important through that whole process.”

But didn’t you guys used to base your whole appeal around John Key? “The John Key government” was the constant refrain, wasn’t it? Now you’re saying it was Bill English all along?

“Don’t underestimate his contribution,” said Reti.

Poor old John Key. One day you’re the only person who matters and the next it’s like you never existed.

Winston Peters was in very fine form. He’s lost the desire to dominate every exchange but more than made up for it by presenting as a nicer person. Keen to laugh, to enjoy himself, no longer reaching for the rage within. Mind you, he hasn’t lost the art of obfuscation and insinuation …

“In Northland,” he said, “We’ve got all the beauty and we’re top of the list in exports [because of tourism] but bottom of everything else.”

This is when he said moving Auckland’s port operations to Northport would save all those billions.

Could he cite any evidence for that? He gave a long answer about the need to do it.

But could he point to any studies at all to suggest it was financially viable?

He said that “over the 16 to 20 years I’ve been following this, there have been several studies and they haven’t come out”. He blamed “the politics”. The studies have apparently been suppressed.

David Parker supported Peters, though not on the question of suppressed studies. “I suspect he’s right, that we will discover that a port in the Firth of Thames or the Manukau is too expensive.”

Peters chimed in with a rant about dredging, which he said would be insignificant for Northport, whereas in the Firth of Thames “they’ll have to dig up half the Sahara”.

That was a good line. Utter bullshit, but a very good line.

Northport, at Marsden Point, is a sleepy port, but there’s scope to grow. Photo: Simon Wilson

The journalist Lloyd Burr, from Newhub, who was there to add a few questions, asked Shane Reti how big he thought the fiscal hole in Labour’s budget is. Reti said it was “above my payscale to answer that”.

Julie-Anne Genter had a go at Peters about immigration and he said he accepted immigration was useful for plugging skills holes, but it should “never be used as an excuse for having failed to educate your own people first”. Hard to argue, if he’d left it there, but then he started throwing around phrases like “nightmare” and “people who are too scared to say enough’s enough”. The crowd loved it, and did not love Genter for sticking to her guns.

“More people means more jobs and a larger economy,” she said, to a chorus of boos. “You just want to blame other people for everything that’s wrong.”

“I’m not blaming them,” said Peters, “I’m blaming you.”

“What, me?”

“Yes, you and your neoliberal rubbish.”

Judging by her perplexed face, it’s unlikely Genter has been called a neoliberal before.

That’s when she said, “This man will blame other people. He’s like Donald Trump.”

It got her a laugh, but not an altogether kind one. So she tried what she obviously thought would be an easier approach, linking hurricanes Irma and Harvey to climate change.

“Rubbish! Rubbish! Nonsense!” came the shouts from the crowd.

Turns out that in Northland, just being a staunch advocate for regional rail doesn’t make you a greenie.

Genter turned it on Peters. “Do you believe in anthropogenic climate change?”

“I’m so pleased you asked that question,” said Peters, before explaining that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment had recommended New Zealand adopt the “Norwegian approach” to climate change, and “only one party has done so”. His own, he meant.

Shane Reti pointed out that Norway is above the global average for emissions. Not a good model at all.

“Not true. Do some homework!” said Peters.

Genter and Parker supported Reti with various other statistics.

“Rubbish!” said Peters.

Lloyd Burr then suggested Peters hadn’t answered Genter’s original question. Did he believe in anthropogenic climate change?

Peters: “Well, even if I didn’t make myself clear, I would have thought what I said about the Norwegian model would have set the matter to rest.”

Burr: “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Peters: “Don’t you get cute with me.”

Splendid, really.

David Parker took the chance to say that Labour’s approach is to “send the right price signal so that we get more forestry and less high-emissions agriculture while getting wealthier as a country”.

Climbing back on the horse after her rebuff over climate change, Genter fired up another local issue: cannabis law reform. What did National’s Shane Reti, a medical doctor, think about legalising medicinal cannabis?

He said he had no issue with it as long as the quality could be guaranteed. In other words, a regime not too different from what we have now. Genter wasn’t having that, saying that’s not what they did elsewhere. It needed to be far easier to get.

Burr jumped in again. “You’d be happy to prescribe medicinal cannabis?”

Reti: “Yes, with the proper guidelines.”

“Gee,” said Burr. “It’s not like you’re part of a government that could make that happen.”

The refinery at Marsden Point, right over the road from Northport. Photo: Simon Wilson

Eventually, to bring them back to the port and the railway, Albie Barr called Dave Gordon from KiwiRail to the stage, to explain what Northport rail was going to cost.

Gordon listed the three components. First, to upgrade the rail line from Whangārei to Swanson on the northwest outskirts of Auckland would require $100 million straight away and another $200 million over 15 years. You have to make all the tunnels larger at the start, but better crossings can be phased in over time. That line is now of such a poor standard it is no longer safe for passenger trains.

Second, a new 19km spur to Marsden Point will cost around $200 million. The route is designated and consented, but only 25-30% of the land is owned by the crown.

Third – and get ready for this – there’s the route from Swanson around the west of Auckland to Wiri, the industrial heartland of the south. That will cost $2-3 billion.

Winston Peters then had a go at Gordon for allowing Northland rail to become so derelict. Gordon seemed to blanch, but said nothing. He’s a public servant and he’s not responsible for the way KiwiRail has been underfunded for years. But Peters wasn’t interested in that.

He was out to make the grand statement: “When,” he demanded, “are you going to give us a modern rail service from Hamilton to Northport and revive this province?”

NZ First is determined to do that. Labour’s not, not at this stage, although it might. Parker: “Our pledge is that we will make a prompt decision. We need an Upper North Island analysis and we’ll get that done quickly.”

The thing about both Northport and the railway is that they require trade, in Northland, and what’s that trade going to be? Tourism is the only big industry. And the Bay of Islands is the only part of Northland that thrives on it. They need more. Hemp? Forestry? Kaimoana-based processing industries? Bananas? It’s getting tropical up there now. They also require that many of the functions of the Auckland port be shifted to Northport.

Fundamentally, it’s an argument about favouring the region for the good of the country, and of the region itself, of course.

Peters gave the crowd one last thing to suck on: “Those people in Auckland don’t understand this. Auckland is the product of all the regions, not the other way round. If Auckland burned down tomorrow, we could rebuild it. But if you destroy the regions, they’re gone.”

Shifting the Auckland port to Marsden Point might be right or it might be wrong. But if it’s wrong, what is going to be done for Northland instead? Peters is quite right to ask.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson 


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