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Let’s vote to re-engineer our cities

New Zealand’s climate strikers and extinction rebels will have to use their votes before Saturday to seriously lower emissions and housing costs. Bernard Hickey argues they must vote out councils who oppose the big rates increases needed to pay for climate-friendly public transport and houses.

The tens of thousands of climate strikers and extinction rebels who marched down the streets of our biggest cities over the last month appeared to show how large and loud the calls for climate-friendly policies have become.

It was encouraging to see the time and effort that went into the organisation of the marches, all the signs and all the chants. The enthusiasm was inspiring and reminiscent of the great movements of the 70s, 80s and early 2000s opposing nuclear weapons, apartheid and the seabed and foreshore legislation.

Lasting political change requires exactly that sort of public show of opinion, but it also requires political action and (most of all) repeated votes at all levels for political parties and candidates to enact change. So far, the marchers appear not to have made that connection to real politics, or have even started down the right track. They seem clueless at the strength of the status quo they need to over-turn or how to change things.

They haven’t fully grasped they live in a democracy that has weaponised the power of double-cab-driving home-owners in the suburbs to block any attempt to re-engineer their suburbs, motorways and housing types, or to get rid of their cheap vehicle imports.

If the marchers truly understood and were mobilised in the right direction they would be voting in their droves in the council elections due to close this Saturday.

A hard-hitting Zero Carbon Act ... will be wasted without councils agreeing to invest heavily in both financial and political terms in re-engineering their cities.

Yet early turnout figures are on track for the lowest turnout in more than a decade. Young voters, particularly those in the biggest and most crucial city of Auckland, have been outvoted at rates of five to one by old property-owning and suburban rate payers in recent elections. The youngest, poorest and most-recently-arrived have the worst voting records.

Understandably, a lot of the last week’s marchers will be focused elsewhere. The loudest rhetoric and policy debate nationally has been around the Zero Carbon Act and its various policy flashpoints, including farmers’ emissions, car import feebates and whether carbon is being priced correctly for all of the economy. All are important, but they will be meaningless without substantial policy change and infrastructure investment at the local government level.

A hard-hitting Zero Carbon Act that appears to discourage the use of petrol and diesel and encourages the use of buses and trains will be wasted without councils agreeing to invest heavily in both financial and political terms in re-engineering their cities.

Those cities will need to be substantially rebuilt for zero carbon emissions transport and affordable, warm, dry and zero-emitting houses. That will require councils to rezone all of their central suburban areas, borrow multiple billions to invest in rail lines, bus fleets and medium density housing infrastructure. Entrenched interests will need to be beaten back.

It will also need the central Government to step up and borrow many more billions to co-invest in those railways, trains, and buses. And yet more billions in affordable three and four storey apartments on train routes and around stations.

Anyone doubting the scale of the fight ahead and how those ‘old leafies’ in the suburbs will vote hard and often to prevent change need to only look at the debates and the positions of the candidates in the election so far, along with the early skirmishes in this battle between generations and world views.

It has only just started. Just look at the intense debates over the Island Bay Cycleway, the Westmere Cycleway and the years of foot shuffling and prevaricating over funding the City Rail Link by the anti-train brigades in the Government and various Auckland councils (pre and post super city).

The reactions will be fierce. It will be cyclists vs motorists, NIMBYs vs YIMBYs, rates freezers vs rail builders, tax cutters vs urban development authority borrowers, car drivers vs congestion chargers, car importers and truckers vs rail users and cyclists, and Mike Hosking vs anyone who dares to even think about adding a bus lane, adding a car tax, cutting a bus fare and building an apartment block.

An angry SUV driver complains to a police officer as Extinction Rebellion protesters block a Wellington intersection for seven minutes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It took two decades of marching, song-singing and voting for the anti-war, anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear generation of baby-boomers to finally overwhelm the post-war generation of leaders represented by Robert Muldoon and his old brigade of anti-communists in 1984. David Lange, Helen Clark, Roger Douglas, Phil Goff, Ruth Richardson and Annette King fought long and hard before they got into Government and enacted the dreams of their generation, which were to reject the stultifying, controlling, isolating and mono cultural mindset of those in power through the 1960s, 70s and early 1980s.

Muldoon didn’t give up. He believed he was right and marshalled all the power of the state and conservatism that that is barely below the surface throughout New Zealand in the provinces, with more traditional Maoridom and to invoke the power of ‘them’ to rally people around the status quo. Muldoon used regulation of trade, the exchange rate and interest rates to hold back the tide for at least three years longer than many thought he would. The ability to divide and rule was a key tool.

Where once those legislative tools were used to tame inflationary impulses, to limit the powers of an elected dictator and to stop that dictator’s big projects, they are now being used to thwart change. Any change.

Perhaps ironically, the generation that overthrew Muldoon and reengineered the apparatus of the state to serve their own interests and embed in the new status quo are now using the same tactics.

The thinking and the core legislation underneath the RMA, the Reserve Bank Act, the State Sector Act and the Public Finance Act have been concreted in place by MMP and the voting demographics of the last decade have cemented in that status quo. Any attempts to change the status quo on climate and housing have been rejected so far by suburban home owners obsessed with protecting and enhancing their tax free capital gains and their car-driven lifestyle, along with a perma-drive for smaller Government and lower income taxes.

Where once those legislative tools were used to tame inflationary impulses, to limit the powers of an elected dictator and to stop that dictator’s big projects, they are now being used to thwart change. Any change.

The RMA can be used by the status quo NIMBY brigade to stop development, particularly when aligned to the congenital opposition to anything involving higher public debt that might endanger low interest rates and low inflation. The Public Finance Act has rusted in a political culture among Wellington’s bureaucracies that is both risk averse and allergic to net debt above 20 percent of GDP.

Extinction Rebellion activists block Lambton Quay: both old and young have come out for climate change protests, but many of the baby boomers'   generation are more concerned with protecting their tax free capital gains and car-driven lifestyle, along with a perma-drive for smaller Government and lower taxes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

MMP has made revolutionary and fast change much harder. It has empowered any coherent and active interest group to stop anything that might transfer wealth or income from one group to another. Entitlements are locked in and new ones are layered in over the top of the group able to best wield that marginal vote. Witness the addition of interest free student loans, the winter energy payment for all pensioners (and retired high court judges,) the fees-free promise for students and the HomeStart payments for first home buyers. The majority of these payments went to the wealthiest home owners and their children.

This median voting bloc will want nothing to do with the Government handing over their future tax cuts to poor people who rent and use public transport. They will fight attempts to borrow to invest in infrastructure for affordable housing, they will fight to stop railways being built instead of new motorways and they will fight to retain their divine right to endless and large tax-free and leveraged capital gains. They will paint any attempts to increase carbon costs as a ‘car tax’ or as Nanny state interference in the kiwi lifestyle.

... they should listen in to Mike’s Minute every morning and know that he is the most popular opinionator in the country and has the Ferrari to prove it.

Those still flushed with the bloom of youth protesting and believing that such a public and large display of calls for climate change action will inevitably lead to change should think again. Right now they think climate change action is inevitable. They should know about the many more tens of thousands of ‘hard-working’ families who want nothing to do with any suggestion of big borrowing governments giving away their future tax cuts to people who they feel don’t deserve subsidised transport and housing.

So those marchers should steel themselves for a reaction. To get a taste, they should listen in to Mike’s Minute every morning and know that he is the most popular opinionator in the country and has the Ferrari to prove it. They should also have looked across the Tasman to see Labor’s promises of climate change action alienate working class voters in Queensland who feared higher power bills and the loss of high paid mining jobs.

But the first thing they need to do is find their council voting papers at the bottom of the recycling, work out who to vote for and get the papers in before Saturday. It may well be already too late to post them back.

It will require another march to the Council offices. It may not be as noisy or as fun, but it will have a much greater impact.

Some further Q&A ...

Why are council elections so important for climate change?

Councils decide whether train lines are built, where they are built, where the stations will be, whether they connect to bus routes, what fares are and whether cycling and walking is safe and attractive. They set zoning and building rules for houses and other buildings. They can decide whether new medium density apartments are built and whether they need car parks and balconies.

Why don’t councils like public transport, cycling and pedestrians much?

Councillors and mayors know they are voted in by mostly old property-owning ratepayers in the suburbs. They know they mostly want to drive everywhere and not have too many other people living in their suburb and clogging up the roads and curbs. Those voters think everyone should have a house with a back yard for the kids and two cars and be able to drive to work and school within 15 minutes, just like they did when they lived in another smaller city or Auckland 20 years ago.

Public transport, cycling and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes cost a lot for councils and the Government to build and they often take lanes and fuel taxes off drivers. The funds have to come from taxes, rates or borrowing, which many voters think will put up their rates or prevent future tax cuts.

What council policies should climate strikers vote for?

Any councillor who is happy to put up rates faster than inflation to pay for public transport is worth voting for. Anyone who wants more medium density housing and is willing to change zoning and parking rules is also worth giving a tick.

Ask the candidates whether they favour a car-free CBD and would happily create new bus lanes and safe cycling lanes in place of car lanes. See how quickly their faces turn white and then green...

What policies suggest a councillor or mayor wants to maintain the status quo and prevent real action on climate change and affordable housing?

They want to build a 16 lane harbour bridge for motorists. They want to freeze rates. They oppose congestion charging. They want to return bus lanes to cars. They oppose light and or heavy rail projects because ‘the costs always blow out and it will mean higher rates.’

Why doesn’t the Government use its borrowing capacity and big surplus to help councils out with all the infrastructure costs?

Great question. Currently many in the financial bureaucracies advising the Government believe in their bones from the post 1984 period that new residents should pay for new infrastructure and that the state shouldn’t get involved like it did before 1984 in subsidising home loans, electricity, housing infrastructure. They believe ‘growth pays for growth’ and that councils and developers should pay for all the railways, pipes, footpaths and paths. Wellington argues that councils should just hold on and the property rates will come. The trouble is councils in high growth areas don’t believe that and ratepayers simply see a big debt load and higher rates. So Councils find all sorts of reasons why the infrastructure shouldn’t be built, and often use the RMA and the debt load argument to stop development.

Why does MMP stop change in its tracks?

Change can happen, but often incrementally and slowly. Voters in the 1993 referendum chose MMP to put a check on the power of a Prime Minister voted in by a minority of voters under 'first past the post' to become an elected dictator who changes policies too much and too fast. Previously, the most popular party would win a majority in Parliament, even if they had less than 50 percent of the vote. New Zealand doesn’t have an upper house or a constitution that limits the power of a Prime Minister able to command a majority in their own party. Essentially, dictatorships were elected for three years and they could do anything. Now it’s much harder to take radical action to change the direction of the country without a financial or natural disaster or a war.

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