The decision to stall progress on Auckland’s light rail till after the election looks appears to be part of a complex series of standoffs between NZ First and Labour.
And the way the decision was arrived at carries a hint of utu about it.
But the decision yesterday will not end the light rail; it simply stops the two-supplier process and leaves the final recommendation on who should build the light rail to the Ministry of Transport.
However, the move yesterday cannot be seen in a vacuum.
It comes a week after the Government announced a list of 11 shovel-ready infrastructure projects.
That list was ostentatiously without a proposal to build a floating dry dock at Whangarei which has been championed by NZ First.
But NZ First’s big proposal has been to shift Auckland port to Whangarei. The Labour-NZ First coalition agreement committed to commissioning a feasibility study “on the options for moving the Ports of Auckland, including giving Northport serious consideration,”
That feasibility study, the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study, came out in favour of it last year and as preparation for the move, in December Cabinet approved an investment in the Kiwirail’s North Auckland Line of $69.7 million) and $40 million the acquisition of land for a rail link to Marsden Point.
In February three Northland mayors launched a campaign, Kia Kaha Northland, to support moving the port to Whangarei.
At the same time, the Ministry of Transport was tasked with working with both the Auckland and the Northland Councils to produce a report on the earlier report and the options for the future of the Auckland port.
That study had a $2 million budget and was due in May.
Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones told POLITIK last night that he wanted to see the report up on the Ministry’s website.
On May 10 NZ First MP and Infrastructure Minister, Shane Jones, was still optimistic about the dry dock and said it was a shovel ready project which would help accelerate economic recovery in the north.
POLITIK understands that a paper went to Cabinet not only proposing the dry dock but also the extension of the wharf at Whangarei.
That was rejected possibly because various additions to it put the price up over $300 million.
But one source outside Parliament, familiar with the process, said the rejection was because Labour wanted to send a message to NZ First.
That would be because of NZ First’s ongoing objection to the light rail proposal.
The party has always advocated a heavy rail connection to the airport from Otahuhu, consistent with its strong support for Kiwirail.
But more subtly, it saw the light rail project as one promoted by affluent inner-city progressives; an electorate it loves to oppose.
On February 29 NZ First wrote to Transport Minister Phil Twyford with what is understood to be an outline of their objections to either the light rail proposal overall or the inclusion in the preferred two options of a public-private partnership proposal from the NZ Super Fund in a joint venture with a Canadian Company.
NZ First generally opposes public-private partnerships, particularly when they include foreign companies.
Twyford has consistently refused to release the letter.
However yesterday he anno8unced that Cabinet had agreed to end the twin-track Auckland Light Rail process and refer the project to the Ministry of Transport for further work.
“Despite extensive cross-party consultation, Government parties were unable to reach agreement on a preferred proposal,” he said.
“The future of the project will now be decided by the government following September’s general election.”
The Ministry of Transport and the Treasury will report back after the general election on the best option for this project to be delivered by the public sector.
But it now seems there is a connection between that letter and NZ First’s refusal to back the light-rail project and the failure of the Government to make progress with the Whangarei port proposal.
NZ First MP and Infrastructure Minister Shane Jone seemed to concede as much last night when he struck back at Auckland Mayor, Phil Goff’s criticisms of the proposal to shift the port.
“On the question of light rail, Phil Goff has cleared his throat and is quite bilious about light rail not proceeding, and he is openly criticizing the absence of consensus,” said Jones.
“My message to Phil is the absence of consensus started with him over the future of the ports.”
The decision to stall the light rail leaves a lot of answered questions.
“Infrastructure NZ CEO, Paul Blair said light rail was proposed to address access, congestion, housing and urban regeneration objectives that were now left without a clear response.
“A significant transport and housing investment programme is now required to fill the gap left by light rail and by Auckland Council funding pressures,” he said.
The Greens, however, are optimistic that we will eventually see a light rail from Auckland CBD to Mangere.
The party’s Transport spokesperson, Julie-Anne Genter, said they welcomed the decision to not proceed with Public-Private Investment (PPI) delivery of Auckland’s light rail project and to run the process through the public service instead.
Cabinet has decided to revert the project’s design process to the public service after seeking external proposals.
“With the twin-track process over, detailed planning work on the light rail can continue, and key design and financing decisions can be taken quickly after the election,” she said.
However, National MP, Judith Collins, told Parliament that the Greens were constantly getting done over by NZ First.
And it does look as though NZ First will play a large role in defeating another Green measure, the Sexual Violence Legislation Bill, the brainchild of Green MP, Jan Logie, which has been picked up as a Government Bill and has the support of Labour.
Justice Minister Andrew Little has said the Bill would reduce the trauma sexual violence complainants experienced in court while maintaining defendants’ fundamental rights while making sure the trial process remained.
That last point is being contested by a group of defence lawyers including a number of female barristers, argue that some of the provisions in the Bill are “deeply troubling”.
It did have the support of National when it was introduced, but that has now changed, and the party is proposing a number of amendments in the Committee stages of the Bill but have made no commitment to vote for it should those amendments fail.
If National does not support it — and New Zealand will not — then the Bill will fail.
NZ First appears to have moved into election campaign mode though their leader, Winston Peters, will not begin his usual national bus campaign tour till later next month.
In the meantime, they are trying to demonstrate their core proposition; that they can be a handbrake on a Labour-Green government.
© 2020, FrontPage Ltd. All rights reserved.