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Grant Robertson at the Labour Party annual conference in Whanganui
Grant Robertson at the Labour Party annual conference in Whanganui. (Photo: RNZ / Yvette McCullough)

The BulletinDecember 2, 2019

The Bulletin: Time right to borrow and spend, says Robertson

Grant Robertson at the Labour Party annual conference in Whanganui
Grant Robertson at the Labour Party annual conference in Whanganui. (Photo: RNZ / Yvette McCullough)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Robertson signals big borrowing to boost infrastructure, discarded e-scooters spark concern, and a big week coming for Auckland’s port. 

The screams of joy from Keynesians echoed out across the land, after a government announcement that the purse strings would be loosened to fund infrastructure. The NZ Herald reports that details at this stage are scant, but will be announced in more depth later this month at the Half Yearly Economic and Fiscal Update. Finance minister Grant Robertson has however indicated it will include large scale borrowing at the currently low interest rates, and that the opportunity was now to invest in short and medium term projects.

The context for this is both the self-imposed debt responsibility rules, and the pretty wide infrastructure deficit facing the country. On the former, the government has given itself a bit more room, moving from a 20% debt target to a range of 15% to 25% of GDP. There’s a really good explainer of it all from Jenée Tibshraeny at Interest about the situation facing Robertson before the announcement. There are potentially billions of dollars in play, though of course there would be a range of political and economic calculations to be made before all of it would be borrowed.

There has been one project put up first – a massive spend on school infrastructure and building maintenance. Stuff has a report on how much will be put forward. There will be an upper limit of $400,000 available to each individual school, and a lower limit of $50,000, assessed against school rolls at a rate of $693 per student. The story puts that in context for one school in Wellington as the equivalent of 40 fundraising fairs. While they might be more fun, fairs aren’t quite as effective as simply getting the money in hand up front. The total cost will be about $400 million, to be spent within two years.

It shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice that there’s an election less than a year away. Inevitably, Labour MPs will go back to the hustings and tell their constituents (or the ones they want to win over) about the large pile of money going towards local schools and projects. There’s a Taranaki Daily News story, for example, which has a list of every school in the region, their roll, and how much funding will come in. Also in that story, National leader Simon Bridges was having none of it, describing the spending promise as merely spin, that won’t be delivered based on the track record of other promises from this government.

Meanwhile, the pledge was announced at the Labour Party conference. After the departure of Nigel Haworth earlier this year, the party took the opportunity to elect a new President, with Habitat for Humanity CEO Claire Szabó winning the race. On the conference generally, there are a few good pieces to read. Stuff’s Henry Cooke notes that heading into election year Labour is still intensely dependent on the profile of Jacinda Ardern for popularity. And on Newsroom, Laura Walters writes about the difficulty the party will have in balancing out their old guard with the need to take advantage of the political moment to bring new leaders through.

A photo of a massive pile of discarded e-scooters in Wellington that circulated on social media has sparked concern about their sustainability. Radio NZ has a story on the Jump scooters (owned by Uber) which have reached the end of their life after just six months – and they weren’t being dumped so much as being piled up in advance of being sent off to Auckland to be recycled.

But it raises the question – if they only last six months, are they really a more green transport option? I happened across this article that goes into the complex emissions picture of e-scooters – it’s on a site called Micromobility America so there may be some biases – but in general terms the latest calculations have e-scooters as a less green option than genuine public transport, but still better than a fleet of private cars. I’d love to know more about how they are actually recycled in New Zealand, so if anyone knows about that process and how much of the material actually gets reused, please send it in –

Expect to see a lot of coverage from the NZ Herald this week on the potential move of Auckland Port operations. With a decision coming soon, they’ll be doing a series on the various options and implications – Simon Wilson (paywalled) introduces it all here. I’m very much looking forward to Friday’s piece, titled “Crunching the numbers: Is this good economics?” An interesting article on an angle of it (which doesn’t actually appear to be part of the series) comes from Andrea Fox (paywalled) who has looked at efforts Northport in Whāngarei have made to get themselves ready to handle a lot more of the car import business.

More than 100 onshore oil and gas wells have been left improperly shut down around the country, reports Radio NZ’s Robin Martin. Collectively, they leave current landowners on the hook for almost $15 million to finish the job. Those that are abandoned before being properly plugged can cause huge problems down the line, for example in the case of a homeowner where oil started to leak under their house.

Another scorching summer looms for New Zealand, with higher than average temperatures and weird rainfall patterns likely for some parts. This from the NZ Herald’s excellent science reporter Jamie Morton is a great explainer of the conditions which will lead to it. The rainfall one especially is super interesting, if a little concerning – basically what is being predicted is too much water in the west and too little in the east, but then halfway through the summer that could flip to being the opposite.

The Opportunities Party has launched a campaign against Australian owned banks, putting stickers about the issue on about 100 ATMs. The party put out a press release on the issue, with their more substantive point being a call for a Royal Commission into Australian-Owned Banks, similar to the one in Australia. That is an idea which has bubbled away over the year as revelations about dodgy practices across the ditch kept coming out.

Meanwhile in defacement protest news, Newshub reports National leader Simon Bridges’ electorate office has had a coating of an oil-like liquid substance, put there by Extinction Rebellion climate protesters. Bridges said in response that he respects the right to protest, “but not when it comes to defacing people’s property.”

Clarence and Kekerengu homeowners have failed in a bid to escape Kaikōura District Council, reports Radio NZ. Kaikōura still faces massive bills from the 2016 earthquake, and there are concerns that the Council simply won’t be financially sustainable into the future. Increased sharing of services with neighbouring councils is planned to alleviate some of those costs.

A ridiculous social media situation played out over the weekend, with National MP Jo Hayes deciding to send a bizarre and weirdly personal attack in the direction of a former Labour Party candidate. The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire has an account of how it all happened, and what the incident should teach politicians who have itchy thumbs and unlocked smartphones. Hayes has since apologised and deleted the tweet.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Absolutely masses of stuff to get through today: Jade Winterburn writes about the future of Pride events in Auckland, particularly the one coming up in 2020. Ricardo Menendez March introduces an open letter about the unfair rules around relationships for beneficiaries. Leonie Hayden has a complex and brilliantly written profile of Māori Council boss Matthew Tukaki. Alex Casey investigates the influencers who have started promoting teeth whitening gizmos, and whether they actually work (the gizmos, not the influencers.) Amanda Thompson assesses the best and worst boxes of chocolates to give this Christmas.

The must read piece of the weekend was a bizarre yarn bouncing off the story of the hundreds of dead rats washed up on the West Coast. An anti-1080 lobby group started promoting some ‘lab tests’ which purportedly showed that the predator control poison was the cause of death. But Dave Hansford smelled a rat, and decided to put the claims to some proper scrutiny.

Finally, two lovely meditative pieces about long distance train travel, perhaps the nicest way to get around this country. Madeleine Chapman took the Northern Explorer and combined a trip on the Interislander and Coastal Pacific routes – part three of this series is coming soon.

For a feature today, an article about bananas. Though to be fair, this book excerpt published by Wired is not really about bananas at all, rather it’s about global food systems and monoculture plantations. Bananas are just a jumping off point to talk about how the systems we rely on to feed the world are intensely vulnerable, and could collapse within our lifetimes. Here’s an excerpt:

That we have created such a simple world seems dissatisfying, but just because something is dissatisfying doesn’t mean it won’t suffice. Theoretically, we could live off of a diminishing number of crops. We could even get by on a single crop. Potatoes, for example, provide nearly all the nutrients we need, as do cassava and sweet potatoes. But just as our demand for a few basic foods whenever we want them was predictable, so, too, were the problems these crops are now facing.

The more we feed ourselves according to our most primitive desires, the more we create a world dominated by just a few productive crops—crops that are threatened by their very commonness. Even coffee is at risk again. Having learned nothing from Sri Lanka, we have once more planted varieties of coffee that are susceptible to coffee rust in large plantations, and the rust is back. That these crops are nearly all at risk today from pests, pathogens, and climate change is not a fluke. Given our preferences, it was nearly inevitable.

The state of Arsenal in the English Premier League is fast becoming one of the most interesting stories of the northern hemisphere football season. The Guardian reports manager Unai Emery has been given the boot, after a post-Wenger era in which the team constantly struggled to find direction and purpose. He’ll be replaced by beloved former player Freddie Ljungberg, who started his tenure with a 2-2 draw against Norwich City overnight. On the other hand, things are going absolutely swimmingly for the Arsenal Women’s team, who have just enjoyed a game in which striker Vivianne Miedema smashed in six goals, assisting with four more to deliver Arsenal an 11-1 victory over Bristol City.

And in the cricket, the third day has finished with a draw the most likely result in the second test. England haven’t yet taken the lead in their first innings, and only two (likely rain affected) days remain. The weekend also saw games in the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield, which currently has a logjam at the top of the points table between the Central Hinds, Northern Spirit and Auckland Hearts.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme.

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