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Photos: Paulus Rusyanto / EyeEm; Hagen Hopkins/Getty
Photos: Paulus Rusyanto / EyeEm; Hagen Hopkins/Getty

PoliticsJanuary 29, 2020

Jacinda Ardern and co are firing up the bulldozers. But can they win the argument?

Photos: Paulus Rusyanto / EyeEm; Hagen Hopkins/Getty
Photos: Paulus Rusyanto / EyeEm; Hagen Hopkins/Getty

Today the government unveiled the essentials of its massive $12 billion infrastructure spend. Alex Braae went along to the announcement. Here he assesses what’s being targeted, and what’s at stake.

With a supergroup of eight ministers in the room, the leading figures in the government presented the image that they hope will be a defining one in election year.

It was an image of three parties finding common ground on what they could work on together, and sharing a big-picture vision for improving the country. They had been prudent enough to plan carefully, and then bold enough to announce the biggest infrastructure spend in a generation. It would have something for everyone, for urban rail users, regional road users, walkers and cyclists, cash-strapped DHBs, antiquated schools, and more.

Money is cheap for the government right now, and it was a “once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in New Zealand”, said Jacinda Ardern. “Better, faster, and funded,” was her strapline. “It represents the best of the three parties.” In short, her government was governing, and was confidently and competently going to deliver.

Yet it is an image that has taken a serious dent over the last two years, as the boldest plans crumbled after coming into contact with reality. Kiwibuild and Auckland light rail have now become bywords for failure and dithering.

There was a clear sense in many of the transport announcements that they were put there as responses to events, or political pressure from specific areas. Among those, $211 million to improve rail between Wellington, Wairarapa and Palmerston North. That network has faced some serious outages in recent years, which because of the geography of the region effectively brought the routes in and out of the capital to a standstill.

Another one that fits this bill is the announcement that the road from Ōtaki to up past Levin would be expanded to four lanes. There had been a lot of uncertainty around it, and last year 150 people marched down the main street of Levin to demand action on it. Those numbers may not sound like a lot, but to be fair, Levin isn’t big. And perhaps more pertinently, the protest was led by National MP for Ōtaki Nathan Guy, who holds an electorate that was once marginal enough for Labour to hold.

Cheat sheet: Epic infrastructure spend announced – what you need to know

The politics of this coalition government were also on display, both in terms of who took the podium at the press conference (finance minister Grant Robertson was followed by Ardern; then NZ First’s Winston Peters, then the Greens’ James Shaw), and in who got what to spend. Many of the announcements will be entirely in keeping with what the Green Party wants anyway. Such as the three Auckland region rail projects worth a combined total of more than $900 million, and the money put into safety improvements for some of the country’s most dangerous roads – a major priority for associate transport minister Julie Anne Genter.

But looking at the names at the top of each press release, there were some huge disparities. NZ First’s Shane Jones, as the minister for infrastructure, got to own $692 million to make the road between Whangārei and Port Marsden four lanes – a crucial piece of work if Auckland Port operations are to move to Northland, which many observers see as a crucial piece of work if NZ First are going to be able to mount a serious challenge to win a seat up there.

Green co-leader and climate change minister James Shaw, by contrast, got to put his name to around $10 million dollars to replace coal-fired boilers in schools and hospitals with biomass boilers. In fairness, these are just the first projects being announced as part of the wider Clean-Powered Public Service programme. But that in total is still only worth $200 million.

The criticism from National has been coming thick and fast, with their transport spokesperson Chris Bishop saying the government had basically done a u-turn on projects that were initially put in place by the previous government, and cancelled after the election. “The government has blinked and decided they’re worth it after all. But let’s be clear: they’re doing this because the National Party made them. They don’t believe in them and can’t deliver them,” he asserted.

But hang on, said Grant Robertson. “The previous government announced a number of projects but did not commit any money to them. Some of these ghost roads we have improved, brought forward and funded.” He said it was in contrast to the last government, which had “a lot of talk, but not a lot of walk.”

Bringing projects forward is an important element of the transport package. But going through the details of each project, construction won’t actually start on many of them this year. To give a few examples – the Penlink road around Whangaparāoa will see construction start in 2021 – that’s a road that has been talked about for literally decades. Construction on Mill Road, from Manukau to Drury South, will take place between 2022-2028. Construction of a roundabout between State Highways 1 and 29 – among the most dangerous bits of road in the country – won’t start until 2022, though as it’s a roundabout a mere two years have been put aside to get it done.

It underlines the political problems with making massive infrastructure announcements in an election year. The sums being talked about are eye-wateringly large. But people won’t see the actual benefits of it all for many years – perhaps not even within the reign of this government.

What people might see though in some projects is the inconvenience of infrastructure being built. Ironically, the announcements took place at the ANZ Building on Albert St in Central Auckland, a road that has effectively been pedestrianised by work on the City Rail Link. That’s a piece of infrastructure that will massively benefit the city in the long run. But in the meantime, it’s a pain in the arse.

Unquestionably there will be a major economic stimulus from such a massive spend, but the government needs something more than that. It will be asking voters to see the promise of what they’ve announced today, and trust them enough to see it through. Nobody would deny, on the strength of the announcements, that the government has a real picture of how they want to change the country. Whether they can actually get it moving is another question entirely.

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