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(Image: Getty Images, The Spinoff)
(Image: Getty Images, The Spinoff)

PoliticsAugust 1, 2023

As National hits a fiscal pothole, Labour risks running off the rails

(Image: Getty Images, The Spinoff)
(Image: Getty Images, The Spinoff)

Transport was the word of the day for both major parties on Monday, as accusations of misleading costings and false promises flew from either side. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports from parliament.

The National Party’s betting that a supercharged version of John Key’s roads of national significance can help it secure a clear path to election victory in October. But it may have hit a $2.8 billion pothole, and one Labour claimed could be misleading voters. The government meanwhile was facing transport questions of its own yesterday after the prime minister and one of his senior ministers wouldn’t confirm whether it would be moving ahead with planned light rail projects should it retain power, or if they too would end up on the ever-growing bonfire of policy promises.

Yesterday went something like this. At 5am, Wellington’s newspaper The Post reported that National would be scrapping the long-gestating Let’s Get Wellington Moving project, which includes plans for light rail and pedestrianisation of the “golden mile”. Instead, it would be building “four lanes to the planes” – a new four-lane highway to the airport – along with a new arterial route connecting the suburb of Tawa with the Hutt Valley. The decade-long plan would also include the long-pledged new Mount Victoria tunnel and a suite of other transport projects in and around the capital. 

By lunchtime, the party’s full $24 billion policy had been released, dubbed “National’s transport plan for the future”. Leader Christopher Luxon was joined for the announcement in Hamilton by a handful of his highest-profile MPs: deputy Nicola Willis, transport spokesperson Simeon Brown and infrastructure spokesperson Chris Bishop. The policy was substantial and would, according to Luxon, “help drive prosperity and lift the standard of living for all New Zealanders”.

“New Zealanders will be able to get where they want to go faster and spend less time in their cars and more time doing what they love. Freight will also move more efficiently around the country, improving productivity,” he said.

It was quickly condemned by the Greens as “visionless” and “nonsensical”, while Act opposed for different reasons. Transport spokesperson Simon Court labelled it a costly wishlist, reiterating his party’s policy to incentivise private investors to build, operate and toll major new roading projects.

The government had its objections too, but it took until later in the day for them to be vocalised. David Parker, the newly minted transport minister, emerged onto parliament’s black and white tiles at 3pm, after briefly wrangling with an automatic door that tried to close on him as he walked through. There’s surely some sort of metaphor in that.

Brandishing documents he said had been pulled directly from the Bay of Plenty council website, and which were distributed to media, Parker claimed there was a fiscal pothole in National’s transport plan of $2.8 billion – at least. He said the official business case for one of National’s dream projects, the Tauriko West State Highway 29, had been recently costed at between $2.5 and $3.25 billion, well above National’s budget of $1.9 billion. Other examples – which he said relied on information from Waka Kotahi that National wouldn’t have been privy to – showed similar holes. Why does it matter, he was asked? Because National had offered “a false promise” to voters. 

“Many of National’s estimates appear to be based on old data and fail to take account of real-world escalations in road construction costs,” said Parker. “The shortfall in their costings for just the four projects they announced is at least $2.8 billion, and as much as $4.8 billion. You can bet it’s much higher when their other projects are included.”

National was livid. When The Spinoff asked for an official response, a party spokesperson promised one would be sent out later. “But seriously,” they added. “This is from the party who has failed to say how they will fund their $30 billion Auckland Light Rail Project.” When that official response did come through, Simeon Brown refuted the fiscal hole existed and accused the government itself of providing outdated costings. “Just weeks ago, the transport minister told National the latest cost estimate for a Cambridge to Piarere highway was $605 million to $721 million,” said Brown. “National responsibly used the top of that range for its costings. Today, the minister claims the estimated cost has roughly doubled.”

He added: “Either the minister hid the cost of the project at the start of this month when we asked for it, or he’s tasked officials to change the numbers to desperately justify his partisan attack.”

Questions of the government’s transport hopes were emerging too, though roads weren’t the issue. Parker, during his press conference, refused to answer questions about whether the government remained committed to projects like Let’s Get Wellington Moving, or if it would also consider ditching it as well. “I’m not here to make announcements as to what our transport policy will be before the election,” he said. “You’ll have a fully formed transport policy, properly funded… before the election.”

The prime minister also evaded several yes or no questions on the subject during a frustrating and at times combative post-cabinet press conference that exposed tensions between “government” policy and “party” policy. “I’m not making any announcements on it today,” Chris Hipkins said, later adding “I’m not making announcements” and “I’m not making announcements on that.” A bit later he said: “I’m saying I’m not making any announcements on what our election policy is going to be.”

However, on Let’s Get Wellington Moving, he conceded: “I think many Wellingtonians will feel that perhaps we haven’t made as much progress… as many in the region would like to see.”

With 10 weeks until polling day, Hipkins said the current time was an “interesting period” as the Labour government had to address two different things. “One is the government policy and one is the Labour Party policy and while we are currently the government, of course, what we put out before the electorate as the Labour Party in the election campaign may not marry up exactly with government decisions. We have to work our way through that.”

Yesterday started with National’s plans to take an axe to transport projects in the capital. By nightfall, it seemed like Labour was also considering running those projects off the rails.

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