Former Prime Minister John Key has perplexed his former National Party colleagues and antagonised Auckland business lobbyists with his surprise support to shift Auckland’s port to Whangarei.
In effect, Key has ended up backing NZ First over National.
Key argues that though it might be very expensive to move it is also very expensive to maintain it.
He told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking that there were all sorts of numbers thrown around about what it would cost to move, but there were also costs to keep the port.
“But the differential between the two is not substantial,” he said.
“Probably a few billion.”
Key’s support comes as the Auckland Port has put up its own alternative proposals to shift the port; not to Whangarei but to the Firth of Thames.
POLITIK understands that Ministers have been told such a shift could be financed by China’s Belt and Road programme.
The Firth of Thames proposal first emerged after the Auckland Council study into the port in 2016.
Meanwhile, in an intriguing insight into tensions within the National Party, the former Finance Minister and party strategist, Stephen Joyce, has come out and taken the opposite view to Key on the future of the port calling the proposal ” a hugely expensive poorly argued diversion.”
But National finds itself caught between its former leader, its former finance Minister and NZ First.
In part this will not have surprised them.
MPs have known for some time that Joyce and Key were no longer cl
National’s Economic Development spokesperson, Todd McClay, last night said National would wait until it had sen the business case before they made a final decision on the port — though in the past when he was Transport Minister, Leader Simon Bridges, was sceptical.
McClay told POLITIK that any government that made a decision away from a solid business case was either having to do that because they were being propped up by NZ First or it was because they didn’t understand it was taxpayers’ money they were playing with.
The Labour – NZ First coalition agreement lists in its “coalition priorities” section a commitment to Commission “a feasibility study on the options for moving the Ports of Auckland, including giving Northport serious consideration.”
Jones has since revealed that when Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson and Director of Strategy Brent Impey met with him along with Finance Minister, Grant Robertson and Transport Minister, Phil Twyford, Jones and Gibson clashed.
It now appears that Jones may have known that Key was soon to publicly support the port moving.
That is probably why he said, “this is as much a political matter as an economic matter, and I advise you, Tony, do not put your head in a political noose”.
The problem Jones (and Key) have is that the numbers produced so far reveal eye-watering costs for any shift of the port.
Infrastructure NZ CEO, Paul Blair says relocating the port is one of the biggest decisions this country will ever make “and needs a full assessment of all the challenges and opportunities.” “We recommend that the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (UNISCS) reports be upgraded to a fully compliant Better Business Case, with independent oversight from the Infrastructure Commission.
“We have five major questions that we expect a future Better Business Case would fully consider,” he said.
“First, additional freight costs need to be fully addressed.
“80% of Ports of Auckland’s goods are currently delivered by truck within 20 kilometres of the port gates.
“Even if 70% of freight arrives back in Auckland by rail, it will arrive at an inland port somewhere in West Auckland and still need to move 20-30 kilometres to its final destination.”
Blair says that if Ports of Auckland is forced to close and the government builds a new port 140 km north, “how confident are we that freight companies will go to Northport?”
“Shipping companies will go to ports where they can balance export and import loads to minimise the number of vessel calls.
“Northland does have a growing export base, but it is substantially less than Auckland’s import volume.
“Even if the freight did follow the investment to Northport, we may all be paying much more to have empty containers moved from Northport to our main export port in Tauranga.”
Blair says the proposed port move would be New Zealand’s largest-ever infrastructure investment and will have long-lasting impacts on New Zealand.
“The Infrastructure Commission was established precisely to provide an independent evidence base for these kinds of infrastructure decisions.
“We should use their independence and expertise to make sure this once-in-a-century decision is the right one,” he said.
The scale of the challenge is clearly evident at a chart of container ship visits to New Zealand.
Tauranga and Auckland dominate; both with over 600 visits a year while Whangarei attracts less than a 100.
If that is a measure of how useful the freight industry thinks the port is then Jones and NZ First will have a considerable challenge ahead trying to win this argument – even with John Key’s help.
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