The vast majority of the Manukau ward travel to work by car. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

Taxing the poor, to transport the rich

If a fuel tax is the best way to fund Auckland’s development, Councillor Efeso Collins asks that the benefits be invested in the people the tax will affect most – those in his Manukau ward.

My parents worked on factory floors at NZ Forest Products in Penrose, cleaning operating theatres of Middlemore Hospital, and driving cabs for South Auckland Taxis. They, like so many others, worked multiple jobs and long hours to put food on the table. They were completely reliant on a private vehicle due to the nature of their work.

I told this story eighteen months ago when I gave my maiden speech during my inauguration to the Governing Body of Auckland Council. I also spoke of my aspirations for the city as a region; of the need for unity, and of building a city made of strong and resilient people. My speech was written specifically to the people of my community in Manukau; where 40% of our population is under the age of 25, and where four out of five people identify as either Māori, Asian or Pacific.

I spoke of the realities that some of my people face, in an area with the lowest home ownership rates across the region, and the stark choices they are often left with in abject poverty; choices that can often feel disempowering and demeaning. I also spoke of the privilege and honour I feel serving and speaking for these people, and the hope I have for them; the face of our future.

With the rest of the Council, as one of the two Manukau Ward councillors, I will soon be debating and eventually making decisions on what initiatives we prioritise in the next ten year budget. I will be looking for items that relate to those issues I raised in my maiden speech; for policy that will benefit Tāmaki Makaurau as a whole, but always with a mind to advocate for those in my community who need my voice the most.

We will also need to decide how we collect the money needed to fund our investment priorities, which brings me to the proposed regional fuel tax. The proposed 10 cents per litre fuel tax would make up for the shortfall in current funding to enable Auckland Council to deliver a higher level of investment in the city’s transport infrastructure. Several projects that have been considered are within the Manukau ward area, such as improving the walking and cycling network, bus improvements and better access to the airport.

Of course I support future investment and further funding of infrastructure that is critically needed in South Auckland. However, I feel there has been a lack of discourse on the issue of social equity, which is all the more compounded when you consider the extremely low levels of engagement from the communities who will be adversely affected by this tax.

According to the 2013 census, 71.9% of workers in Manukau use a private vehicle when travelling to work. Compared to the rest of New Zealand, we have a high number of people working in the trades, machinery operators and drivers, and labourers. Middlemore Hospital and the Airport are two of our largest employers, and many of their employees are shift workers. These workers drive because public transport, walking, and cycling are often not feasible options, given their work hours.

Census data also shows that the vast majority of those from my ward don’t work in the CBD, they work outside their local board area, in the outer urban board areas. And yet, the majority of public transport continues to service those traveling north. The buses take people to the train station – which mostly benefits those working in the CBD.

Efeso Collins at his swearing in ceremony in 2016. (Photo by Todd Niall/RNZ).

It is evident that those across Auckland who are well serviced by public transport favour it as their means of transport. According to NZTA, more than 1 in 4 people that work in the CBD take public transport, compared with roughly 1 in 12 people for the whole Auckland region. People in South Auckland drive because public transport doesn’t always take them where they need to go, when they need to get there.

Manukau has already suffered from gross underfunding of infrastructure in the area – we are only just getting the Southern Corridor widened, and the bottlenecks to the motorway remedied. The motorway improvements to SH20 and the Waterview tunnel have only served to exacerbate congestion in the South. We have the airport, which provides wonderful work opportunities, but we suffer from the congestion that comes from regional-wide travel to and from the airport, and the tourists who contribute to the economy in other parts of Auckland, but rarely in our suburbs.

There is also no guarantee that the fuel tax will make a real impact in the South. The light rail proposal may assist, particularly around Māngere. However, this is something that will benefit the region, not South Auckland specifically, and a recent announcement from the Government indicates that light rail won’t be funded through the RFT.

Due to low household incomes, my community doesn’t have the luxury of paying additional tax now, to benefit future generations. For those who are struggling to provide basic necessities for their whānau, further tax, no matter how well-intentioned in principle, can seem impossible. In Māngere-Ōtāhuhu and Ōtara-Papatoetoe local board areas the median household incomes combined average $59,950, one of the lowest figures across Tāmaki Makaurau. In comparison, areas closer to central Auckland like Ōrakei, an area already serviced with sufficient access to transport infrastructure, records a much higher median income of $107,800 – a whopping 79.9% more than my constituents in Manukau.

Sam Warburton, an Economist and Research Fellow for The New Zealand Initiative, has raised important issues around equity in his submission to the Select Committee on the Land Transport Management (Regional Fuel Tax) Amendment Bill. He identified that less fuel-efficient cars are likely to be owned by low-income families. Sam makes specific mention of Māori and Pacific Island families who tend to own big vans and cars that are typically not fuel-efficient, which will result in a disproportionately high fuel tax contribution. From my experience growing up in Ōtara, I would absolutely agree with this sentiment.

User-pay schemes are fair in practice when users have alternative options at their disposal. If you live closer to centralised services, it might be a very easy choice to make, to ditch your private vehicle for a bus, train or even bike. Or, you might earn enough to barely notice the relatively small increase to your petrol costs and make the choice to continue to drive. However, this argument doesn’t always stack-up when you consider the average Manukau commuter.  

If, in fact, the regional fuel tax is really the only answer to make the difference to council funding, we must find other ways to return that upfront cost to the communities that will be burdened by it.

The Māngere-Ōtāhuhu Local Board recently provided a submission to the Regional Transport Committee about the use of ‘farebox recovery’ (the amount of operational cost that is expected to be recovered from ticket sales) as a mechanism to lower Public Transport user costs. The Board are advocating for a decrease in the percentage of ‘farebox recovery’ in Auckland to more closely resemble some cities in Australia, who have much lower user fees. This obviously doesn’t solve the concerns I have around the lack of options afforded to so many in my ward, but it is a discussion worth having and would have some impact on those who do use public transport.

We need to continue talking about how we might implement road tolling or congestion charging in future. I understand how complicated these policies can be, but still believe we can find creative ways to deal with the issues unique to our city in order to invest in our future, without placing a disproportionate burden on any member of society.

I definitely don’t have all the answers to the issues I present, but I do know that my community would want me to raise these concerns on their behalf, before any proposed tax is implemented. In order for our region to really thrive, to become that world-class, livable city, we must always ensure we are looking after all of our communities, particularly those who have often felt left behind. Together, we will always be stronger. We should always focus on our people, and I will continue to advocate for policy that puts them first. 


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