The buzz is that National is about to back Auckland's CBD rail loop. And before you think the government's changed its roading stripes, let's consider the politics behind this

National parties and rail have long been, well, running on different tracks. But the buzz in Auckland this week has been that John Key may be about to jump the tracks (yes, I'm going to keep on with these puns) and come in behind the Auckland CBD rail loop. Now there's some news to that effect - that'll teach me for not writing this blog last night as planned!

This is quite a step for National, given not only the barely concealed scorn Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee have expressed for Auckland rail and the CBD loop in particular, but the anti-rail history of the party.

Sid Holland in 1949 put the kaibosh on public transport plans, as did Rob Muldoon in the 70s. Every time it looked like Auckland might get back on track, central government blocked the lines. (Though heck, while it's mostly been National, the fourth Labour government was the one that actually sold the railways and even Clark's crew spend three terms doing sod all, until it was too late).

It's as if the communal nature of rail somehow grated against National's individualistic politics; a person in a privately owned car, now that's for them. But I've heard Key is about to switch horses. [Ed's note: As, it seems, everyone has now, with the news everywhere. Really should've blogged last night].

It'll be a matter of Joyce and Brownlee swallowing some dead rats. Oh, they can say they always said a rail loop would come one day and so on. But they stalled, asked for reviews, stressed how "very, very expensive" it would be and insisted the case for funding had not been made. And Auckland was stuck, dependent as it is on some central government funding for such a massive project. National had the power and wanted to spend on roads.

So what's changed? Two things. Len Brown will win this year mayoral election without a decent National-friendly candidate standing against him. Brown will again spend weeks and months stressing that the rail loop is urgenly needed and his number one priority. He would have also spent that time sticking it to National and Aucklanders heading to the booths would have had that message firmly in mind.

What's more, agreeing to help fund Brown's baby helps ensure his re-election, something they would have been reluctant to do had Maurice Williamson or another ally been standing. But now that's not a problem.

Second, we're getting close to the next election and third terms are tough to win. National support will soften at some point (if only a little, if Labour can't get it's act together) and with coalition partners evaporating before their eyes, National strategists will be acutely aware of the Auckland vote. The polls will have told tham that Aucklanders want the loop and this change of stance gives Key a chance to say he's listening to the big city folk.

It nicely beats Labour while it's down and gives Aucklanders a feel-good factor now, but doesn't put the books at risk.

The government's surplus date won't be jeopardised by this spend, because the loop will be come years off, with most of the bill to be paid by a future government. But more than finances, this shift is about politics.

Here's Auckland councillor Mike Lee in 2010:

"...clearly this debate has got a fair way to run. But it would seem clear to me sooner or later if the Govt wants to be re-elected next year it will have to concede unlike the Puhoi to Wellsford Highway with its BCR of 0.4 – the CBD Rail Link does stack up. The Govt would dearly love to kill it off – but if they are not careful what comes roaring out of Auckland’s underground rail link could end up running down the National Govt.”

Well, he was one election out, but otherwise right in every sense. Just as Bill English has sucked up KiwiRail as a 'nice to have' he has to hang onto, so the Nats will suck up a bit more rail for the sake of the Auckland vote. And it could be a decisive blow, even more than a year out from the next election.

The inevitable looks set to finally become real. And what a relief for Auckland.


Comments (10)

by stuart munro on June 26, 2013
stuart munro

Hmm - the five year delay will cool support though. I guess Len Brown could forward borrow against the promise and get things actually moving - which is what folk will want to see. Political promises five years out are just excuses - like the promised reform of the slave-ship fishing operations - pushed out beyond the election and into the never-never.

by Ian MacKay on June 26, 2013
Ian MacKay

The Govt is saying start in 2020 I think, by which time Brownlie, Key etc will be where?

by Tim Watkin on June 26, 2013
Tim Watkin

The politics though Stuart is that a future Labour/Greens government will cough up. The doubt has been National. But now that a National government will have backed it - in some form - it makes it very hard for future Nats to opt out. Sure, Key went back on Brash's commitments re Maori seats, for example, so nothing's in stone. But if Aucklanders come to expect it and see progress made, it'd be a brave future politician who would pull the rug (or tracks) out from under them. 

by Tim Watkin on June 26, 2013
Tim Watkin

I'd written this post before Key spoke, Ian. But I'd guessed they'd have some delay on it. Yes, this lot will be gone in 2020, but see my point in reply to Stuart. The debate has today moved from 'if' to 'when', which is significant. And National has dulled the attack on them as a result.

by stuart munro on June 26, 2013
stuart munro

Well, I can see that politically it's a good investment for National. Defensive, cost-free, even slightly constructive. A smart operator (no idea if Les Brown is one) would leverage it though. As with most worthwhile infrastructure projects, costs rarely decrease, and if demand is significant (which with Auckland traffic is pretty much a given unless the design was botched) then the sooner it's in the better.

If it's a good idea in 2020, it's probably a good idea now. A promise of funding is enough to build something that is genuinely useful and creates cashflow.

by Graeme Edgeler on June 27, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

we're getting close to the next election and third terms are tough to win...

Only one two-term government in the history of the modern New Zealand party system has failed to be elected to a third term.

by Tim Watkin on June 27, 2013
Tim Watkin

Yeah, I know Graeme. I don't think that makes it easy and you know how close and circumstantial some of those have been (much reduced majorities [to the point of minority votes], coalitions, divided Oppositions, use of the Springbok Tour etc).

by Alan Johnstone on June 28, 2013
Alan Johnstone

There really was no choice; I was reading the polling results on this last night and it was crystal clear that Aucklanders laid all the blame on Wellington (Key, Smith & Brownlee) and none on Len Brown.

The cyrstal clear result from the polling was that Aucklanders didn't want outsiders (all 3 ministers fronting on the topic are south islanders) interferring in the running of their city.

It was clear that Labour were going to run a strong "Auckland issues" campagin next year. This is now gone.

Aucklanders have been growing more aware that their tax base subsidises much of NZ and they weren't getting a fair go. You can't win an election without Auckland, the maths are inexorable.

by Tim Watkin on June 28, 2013
Tim Watkin

Alan, that's a good observation about the South Is ministers. And yes, the rest are my points exactly.

This really is a great result for Brown, but not for Labour. People have been talking about the poll this week being a blow for the reds, but National's transport announcement is much the bigger hit to Labour's aspirations. It'll do a lot to keep Aucklanders on side.

But it's interesting to note that while the rail link got all the attention by being leaked first - seemingly by Phil Twyford? -  it's a small part of the whole package. Of the $10 billion promised today, around 3/4 will go on roads, as per typical National. But the party's hidden that behind the rail loop headline. If Twyford did leak that part of it early, he did National a favour.

by Kit McLean on June 30, 2013
Kit McLean

Maybe semantics... but it's not a loop. It's a link, or better, a connection. It effectively joins the dead end Britomart with the Western Line. Almost exactly the same thing Waterview is doing for the motorway system, connecting SH20 to SH16. No one calls that a "Road Loop" . Loop has negative connotations of useless short circles that are good for tourists, not commuters; like the Wynyard Quarter tram loop for example... 

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