Two Northland mayors with National Party links yesterday broke with their party and endorsed the Government’s now transparent plans to shift Auckland port to Whangarei.
At the same time there were more announcements yesterday of Kiwirail infrastructure for Northland which would be required if the port shifts.
And in what seems like a broader campaign for NZ First to win the Northland seat, there will be more Provincial Growth Fund announcements in Dargaville today of new funding for projects in the electorate.
In Auckland, the Prime Minister kept up the momentum with a warmly-received speech to a Business NZ lunch highlighting the current buoyant state of the economy and providing more detail on Wednesday’s $8 billion infrastructure announcements.
The announcements look more like an election campaign than the usual measured pace at which Government decisions are unveiled.
POLITIK understands that the PM’s advisors have agreed the Government should hit the ground running this year, unlike last year when they stumbled with the announcement of the year of delivery.
Even so, there are potential obstacles that may emerge. Next week at Waitangi contains a number of unknowns; most particularly what stance the Iwi Leaders’ Forum will take over the Government’s freshwater cleanup proposals and it is still unclear whether the Prime Minister will be in a position to announce a resolution to the Ihumatao standoff.
And yesterday both Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers highlighted concerns they have over changes to the Emissions Trading scheme which Dairy NZ claims could see the Government reap a $7 billion windfall from ETS units sold at auction over the next five years.
Ministers questioned this with Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, saying it was conceivable but that the DairyNZ claims assumed that the auction price would reach the $50 maximum which he argued it was unlikely to.
But the big news was the announcement by State-Owned Enterprises Minister Winston Peters and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones that the Government was making a $109.7 million investment, through the Provincial Growth Fund, into regional rail across Northland.
“Last year we announced almost $95 million of Provincial Growth Fund funding to undertake long overdue and critical maintenance on the rail line to Whangarei and today we are building on our promise to return rail to its rightful place in Northland,” Peters said.
“We are investing a further $69.7 million to lower the tracks through tunnels on the Northland Line between Swanson and Whangarei, expanding rail further into Northland by reopening the rail line from Kauri and building a container terminal at Otiria.”
A further $40 million has been earmarked to purchase land along the designated route of the spur line to Northport and Marsden Point.
Not accidentally this investment matches up with the final report of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Working Group last December which called for the transfer of the Auckland Port to Whangarei.
The report said: “The new two-port configuration should be supported by a rejuvenated North Auckland rail line and spur to Northport, and a new inland freight hub in northwest Auckland to complement and be connected to Metroport in the south.”
The rail improvements and the road improvements in Northland announced on Wednesday have drawn support from three Northland mayors.
They include a former National Minister, John Carter, the Mayor of the Far North District Council snd a member of a well-known Northland National Party family, Jason Smith, the Mayor of Kaipara District Council. (He is a nephew of the former Speaker, Sir Lockwood Smith.) The third, Cheryl Mai, is the Mayor of Whangarei.
In a statement they said that acting as private individuals, they would be launching a campaign in the weeks ahead for five projects to boost the Northland and wider North Island economies:
- A $240 million dry dockto enable ships from New Zealand and Australia to be serviced and repaired in Whangarei rather than have to make the long trip to Asia
- A new base for the Royal New Zealand Navyto replace that at Devonport, Auckland
- An expanded Northportto take the cars and containers currently entering New Zealand through the port in the Auckland CBD, and for exports from Northland and elsewhere
- The completion of a four-lane expressway from Whangarei to Auckland, including the planned four-lane highway to Port Marsden
- Fast-tracking a double-tracked rail line from West Auckland to Whangarei, including the planned spur to Port Marsden
“A unique set of economic and political circumstances have put all five projects within reach,” their statement said.
“The combination of all five projects is greater than the sum of the parts.
“It would be a disaster for Northland to let this opportunity be lost.”
Back in Auckland the Prime Minister was talking up all the Government’s $8 billion infrastructure announcements when she spoke to a Business New Zealand lunch in Auckland.
As she did on Wednesday, she directly addressed the criticism the Government is getting from the green anti-car lobby.
She conceded that people had been waiting for projects like the Whangapaoroa Penlink highway for some time, but that now they were “better, faster and funded.”
“What do I mean by better,” she said.
“Penlink will have adjacent walking and cycling and that’s a thing you will see through these projects.
“It might have been trite ten years ago to say that roads can be green too because you need something to have your bus go on.
“Well, actually, now you do need transport links for your public transport; for adjacent walking and cycling; for low emission and electric vehicles.
“That is a reality now.”
She said the projects fitted into the Government’s overall agenda.
“They show the progress we are making,” she said.
“But we will be very clear as Government Ministers this year; we are not done yet.
“You can see from these plans that it is our intention to create certainty for you.
“Certainly for these projects but also certainty about what you will get from a Government like ours.”
Later, asked specifically about Northland, and whether the rail announcements increased the prospect of Auckland port moving to Whangarei, she said the announcements sent a strong signal that this was a commonsense government and that it made sense to connect the port to rail.
It has been a bold call by the Government; to reverse its previous objections to four-lane highways and to plunge into a construction list at last as ambitious as that proposed by National before the last election.
It is an ostentatious raid right into the National Party electoral heartland and (at the same time) a huge boost for New Zealand First’s chances of winning back Northland.
What it shows is just how determined Ardern and her Ministers are to hang onto power. And they know that if NZ First does not get back, then that increases the chance of a National Government.
At the same time the heavy hints about the port resonate among middle-class Aucklanders, many of whom want to see it gone from the central city waterfront.
There is every indication that Ardern is going to keep this pace up and so far, this week, she seems to have caught National off guard.
The party has yet to define its policy on the port shift even though its Auckland Central MP, Nikki Kaye, and former Leader, Sir John Key and, now, John Carter, all support a move.
This week has looked like the opening of the election campaign.