Stop bickering, start building

Neither National nor Labour seems truly focused on speeding up infrastructure development, preferring instead endless arguments about specific projects or bickering like spoiled brats over political ads, writes Peter Dunne.

The current great Parliamentary drama over the National Party’s so-called attack advertisements on social media is no more than a storm in a teacup that demeans the credibility of both the major parties, and the Speaker.

It demeans National because, along with Labour, it was part of the Standing Orders Committee that drew up the current rules it now dismisses as silly and is wilfully breaching.

And it demeans Labour for complaining about National’s advertisements attacking it, having failed to do so when the Greens launched their (subsequently withdrawn) advertisements attacking National a little while ago. It reeks of little brats acting like spoiled children, rather than serious competitors for political office.

Worse, is the now customary hamfisted intervention of Parliament’s Speaker. His typical over-reaction, fuelling absolute defiance from the National Party, has left him very little room to manoeuvre.

Rather than fire the blunderbuss the way he did, a wiser Speaker would have, upon receipt of the Labour Party’s complaint, called all the parties into his office and reminded them privately of the relevant Standing Order which he intended to enforce. Then he should have left it to them to work out their response, in full knowledge of the consequences, should they continue to breach the Standing Order.

Parliament works best on quiet behind-the-scenes co-operation, not public bullying of one party at the behest of another. A Speaker worth the office would understand and abide by that.  

... its criticism should be focusing on what is holding up the development of this major transport infrastructure for so long.

One of the National Party’s controversial advertisements focused on the Prime Minister’s 2017 commitment in Opposition that Labour would have a business case completed for light rail (which National continues to dismiss with appalling arrogance and shameful ignorance as “trams”) from Auckland City to Mount Roskill by 2018, with the service operational by 2021.

Two years on, the project has apparently stalled, with the current position being that while some optimistically believe work may begin next year, a more likely commencement date is 2022, at an estimated cost of around $1.4 billion for the thirteen kilometre service. And this at a time when economic commentators are pleading with the government to invest more and sooner in developing critical infrastructure to maintain economic growth at a time of international slippage.

National’s criticism misses the point – continuing to snipe at putting “slow” trams back on Manukau Road is trivial and petty – rather, its criticism should be focusing on what is holding up the development of this major transport infrastructure for so long.

New Zealand’s leading tramway historian, Graham Stewart, has recently produced his latest book, a history of the Napier City tramway service that ran from 1913 until the earthquake in 1931.

It makes for interesting reading, with some telling facts in the historical timeline that are relevant to the current debate about light rail in Auckland. For example, the building of the Napier tramway was gazetted by Order-in-Council in May 1911. Tenders for the first fleet of tramcars closed eight months later in February 1912. The first sod for the development of the tramway took place in March 1913, with the tram service proper commencing that September. Less than two and a half years had elapsed between the Order-in-Council establishing the tramway company, and its services commencing. Napier’s population at the time was but 11,000 people, yet the trams carried over 1.4 million passengers in their first six months of operation.

The question all this immediately gives rise to is why does it now take so long to develop critical infrastructure in New Zealand. How was Napier able – 113 years ago -  to get a tram service up and running just six months after starting to lay tram tracks, and why, today, in an age of superior technology, is it likely to take several years to lay a not dissimilar length of track, and establish a modern service in Auckland?

Greater urban planning restrictions are part of the reason, although are by no means the full story. Nor is the hoary old chestnut of the Reserve Management Act to blame. In the Napier instance, there had been the planning regimes of the day, plus the intricacies of local body financing structures and rules to be met, and the support of central government, culminating in the Order-in-Council, to be obtained.

While the Napier example provides a useful reference point, the issue is, of course, much wider than just the development of light rail in Auckland. All critical infrastructure development in New Zealand now seems to take an inordinately long time to bring to fruition.

The current Government – like its predecessor – says it wants to focus on boosting infrastructure development. It talks a lot about the importance of more investment in infrastructure like public transport, or housing, or in social development like health services and education.

They are all good and worthy sentiments, but as the failure of KiwiBuild and the stalling of transport infrastructure developments, of which the Auckland to Mount Roskill light rail line is just one example, all show, the bottleneck that has strangled the speedy advance of such developments for years now has still to be broken.

If the National Party was serious in its criticisms of Labour’s approach to infrastructure developments, it would be focusing its attention on identifying and rolling back the roadblocks currently to such developments, rather than just picking at some of the specific projects Labour has identified.

Equally, if Labour was more focused on actually doing things than just angsting and fretting about them, as if that was enough, it would have paid more attention to understanding the mechanics of how things work, than just continuing to try to paint pretty pictures on easels that cannot stand up unaided.

In a truly first-world country, repairing damaged infrastructure as a priority should be a given, not something dependent on a political promise.

Neither seems focused on speeding up infrastructure development, preferring instead seemingly endless argument about specific projects.

The Deputy Prime Minister likes to talk wistfully of New Zealand as a “first world country”. That is our common aspiration, but the reality is we cannot make that claim while much of our infrastructure remains in its current woeful state.

On the Wellington waterfront there is currently an old cargo crane, the jib of which collapsed in the 2016 earthquake. Nothing has happened since then to either repair or remove it, leaving it almost a metaphor for the state of infrastructure in New Zealand.

When the Mayor of Wellington’s main campaign promise in a recent campaign brochure is to rebuild the earthquake-damaged main library, the realisation dawns of how backward our infrastructure maintenance and development has become.

In a truly first-world country, repairing damaged infrastructure as a priority should be a given, not something dependent on a political promise. Ensuring and enabling the timely development of sustainable modern first world infrastructure, consistent with the needs of our country of our size, is an issue that should engage all New Zealanders. It should not be the province of one particular political party, but the commitment of all.

After all, if Napier could do it in just a few short years with its tramway system over a century ago, New Zealand today can surely recapture the same level of commitment to make it happen in the far more technologically advanced 21st century.        

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