Phil Twyford in campaigning mode. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Why Phil Twyford should absolutely be sacked (and why he absolutely shouldn’t)

Transport minister Phil Twyford is under fire again, and is facing calls to be sacked over delays around Auckland’s light rail system. Should he stay or should he go? Alex Braae assesses the arguments. 

The drums are beating for Phil Twyford. The failure to get the government’s Auckland light rail plans out the door, and the possibility Twyford misled the public in the process, have led to calls for either his resignation or sacking.

However, that doesn’t mean Twyford’s political demise is inevitable. Sometimes ministers survive turbulent weeks intact, and sometimes they’re forced out before anyone has seriously suggested the possibility. Iain Lees-Galloway faced down repeated calls for his resignation over the decisions he made in the Karel Sroubek saga, while Twyford himself immediately offered his resignation (and was stripped of responsibility for Civil Aviation) when he was snapped using a cellphone while his plane was taxiing. These matters are unpredictable, and depend on political calculations as much as those around policy.

So, should Phil Twyford stay or go? Here are the two competing cases, broken down into the various arguments that will be thrown around over the next few days.

Go

This was Labour’s big idea for how to cut through the Gordian knot of Auckland’s traffic congestion. It would have taken cars off two crucial and frequently clogged roads – the Southwestern motorway and the Northwestern motorway. Twyford’s insistence on hearing out the Super Fund bid to build light rail has caused interminable delays to it actually getting started, and commuters deserve better.

Stay

Hang on, isn’t it the job of ministers to weigh up competing options so as to find the best one? These are hugely complicated projects, and delays are inevitable if you want the best possible decisions to be made. What a waste it would have been to get a couple of years into the construction of a project that turned out to be inadequate.

Go

Phil Twyford has been accused of misleading the public. NZ Herald columnist Matthew Hooton made this claim last week, saying the Super Fund’s bid to build their version of the mass transit network was clearly solicited. That cut against repeated claims that the Super Fund bid came entirely off the organisation’s own bat.

Stay

Phil Twyford has declared this allegation totally wrong and defamatory. Either way, does it actually matter much? Is this not simply one of the eggs that might need to be broken to make the ministerial omelette, as it were? And again, if it results in a better outcome being achieved, then don’t the ends justify the means? This is government, and government in the real world is sometimes messy and complicated.

Go

Come on, this is being far too generous. This is twice now that Phil Twyford has been tasked with rolling out a Labour policy which promised to be transformational. And just like with Kiwibuild, this has dented the credibility of the government as a whole. These debacles are directly in his portfolios, and being a minister means wearing that responsibility when things go pear shaped.

Twyford was moved out of housing after KiwiBuild crumbled

Stay

Why would you get rid of someone overseeing a complex project right in the middle of crucial decisions being made? It is impossible to imagine that Phil Twyford hasn’t learnt useful things over his two years as minister of transport – surely that knowledge is best put to use by keeping him on as minister of transport? Besides, Twyford is a big vision sort of guy, and the government needs that. In fact if not for big visions, what’s the point of anyone going to the trouble of getting into government at all? We should all want our politicians to aspire to more than simply keeping things ticking over.

Go

The Royal Navy once shot an admiral in the 18th century, ostensibly according to Voltaire “to encourage the others.” For PM Jacinda Ardern to get rid of Phil Twyford would show that she’s serious about incompetency not being acceptable. While former minister Clare Curran was sacked for improper diary keeping, there was plenty of speculation that she was sent packing for not being up to the job. Twyford deserves the same.

Stay

Which lucky sailor would get to be the next admiral of the ship? Julie Anne Genter might have done a fairly competent job in her limited areas of responsibility as associate transport minister, but the confidence and supply agreement between the Greens and Labour would make promoting her a messy business. Is there anyone in Labour’s ranks who would be up to it? Kris Faafoi and Deborah Russell (an Auckland MP, at that) are both talked about as potential senior ministers, but that would be a huge step up.

Go

Why wait? Two years of failure is long enough. Jacinda Ardern’s credibility is on the line here.

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Stay

Phil Twyford is one of Labour’s top five. The jobs he was given were central to what Labour promised the country. To remove him now would be a huge admission of failure, and would basically mean the PM telling the country that her decision to put him in had been wrong. That would arguably dent Jacinda Ardern’s credibility even more.

A compromise …?

Could there be a wider reshuffle in which responsibility for various aspects of transport gets split up among a few different people? After all, it’s how the government managed to get Megan Woods the title of minister of housing, with Twyford shuffled diagonally downwards to become the minister for urban development. Don’t rule this out as being the best available for the PM.

Won’t happen

A reshuffle so close to the election? It’s just under a year away, and the government are navel gazing about who gets to sit in which chair? Surely not.

Or could it?

The election is just less than a year away, and no matter which poll you consult, the opposition is really only a small swing away from taking back power from the coalition. Imagine being a one term government because Aucklanders felt let down by Phil Twyford.


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