ACT leader distances himself from National's handling of Auckland issues, especially traffic congestion

ACT leader David Seymour backed congestion charging in Auckland and called Transport Minister Simon Bridges "weak" for his inaction on Auckland's traffic congestion, at a local government panel discussion tonight.

I'm just home from chairing the event at Somervell Presbyterian, where Seymour featured on a panel alongside economist Shamubeel Eaqub, Greens Finance spokesperson Julie-Anne Genter and Mission Bay and Kohimarama Residents Association Chair Don Stock. It was the first part of a Talk Auckland series, ahead of next Thursday evening's mayoral debate.

Much of the conversation focused on Auckland's housing crisis and, with the exception of Stock, the hope across the panel that however imperfect, the Unitary Plan was a blueprint for encouraging a significant increase in the number of homes being built in the city. The plan's target of 18,000 new homes a year seems wildly optimistic, especially when, as Eaqub said, council is snookered with no obvious way to fund the $17+ billion of infrastructure the city requires. But it does lay the groundwork politically and institutionally at least for a rapid increase in the number of homes built in Auckland.

But the takeaway headline was Seymour's strong criticism of National's handling of Auckland's traffic woes. He argued there was nothing wrong with people commuting from the fringes of the city as long as they pay their way. When I asked him about National's refusal to allow the council to introduce congestion charges he said he didn't know why Bridges had been so weak on the issue and that the government must move to allow Auckland Council to raise money for infrastructure.

One of the answers is that Bridges is stalling for time. The Auckland Accord and the one year of talking about "alignment" that it brought was a delaying tactic to get passed these local government elections, get a year beyond the higher than expected rates rises of last year and, presumably, to save central government actually having to spend. But it was striking to hear a support partner call out National on its approach to Auckland traffic.

He also was at odds with Finance Minister Bill English, who has said that "fundamentally" it is not the government's job to pay for Auckland's infrastructure. Auckland was a rapidly growing city and it should use its own growing ratings base to pay for the development it needs. English has been insistent that – the central rail loop aside (and that took years of convincing) – it is not central government's job to build Auckland's infrastructure.

It seems inevitable that English will have to move on that stance, whatever he and his cabinet colleagues think of the current Auckland mayor, council and bureaucracy. While they keep the council on the naughty step for its perceived wastefulness, both refusing to fund infrastructure itself and refusing to allow the council to raise funds from, say, congestion charges or regional fuel taxes, the city grinds ever closer to a halt. It's point scoring at the expense of Aucklanders.

And Seymour seems to see that, in particular that National will have to come to the party at some stage. In opposition to English's 'not our job' stance, Seymour suggested that all the tax and GST revenue that the government collects from Auckland's construction sector should be returned to the city.

He argued what the government takes from Auckland's growth should be ring-fenced and funnelled back into the infrastructure needed to sustain that growth.

It seems a most un-ACT-like policy; quite interventionist and reminiscent of New Zealand First's policy of royalties from oils and minerals having to be poured back into the regions where the drilling and mining occurred. But most notably it was the ACT leader speaking to a local Auckland audience and clearly distancing himself from some of the key decisions National is making about the city. And not only taking a fundamentally different view on government spending in the city, but openly calling a cabinet minister "weak" in his handling of his portfolio.

A little over a year out from the next election, that's telling.

Comments (7)

by Alan Johnstone on August 19, 2016
Alan Johnstone

I think it's telling virtually none of the senior leadership of the National party involved in this issue (Key, English, Joyce, Smith) are from Auckland. The only Aucklander involved, Bridges, represents a provincial seat.

Auckland today is radically different from a decade ago. I don't think they really get it. The lateness of support for the CRL is a good example.

Lot of votes in Auckland............

by Alex Rahr on August 19, 2016
Alex Rahr

ACT is still dependent on the National party for the seat of Epsom, which they need to get any parliamentary representation at all. Also they'd be unlikely to form a coalition with any other party and there's no bill coming up re: Auckland's problems where Seymour might vote against them that I know of.

A public statement to try and make ACT look different doesn't change all that much. It does confirm that Seymour is following in Rodney Hide's populist shoes rather than the more purist Roger Douglas's I guess.

by Tim Watkin on August 19, 2016
Tim Watkin

Key and Joyce are both Auckland MPs, Alan. But they don't seem to get it. Their delaying tactics are more than frustrating, even if they are doing that cos they don't trust Auckland Council to spend it right.

 Alex, I don't think comparisons with Hide get to the nub of Seymour. Sure he's got a decent eye for a populist line/good angle (see RWC pub opening and Uber), but he' a very different politician.

by Alan Johnstone on August 19, 2016
Alan Johnstone

Tim, Joyce is from Taranaki, Key a south islander that lived in Asia and New York before Parnell. Key represents a rural constituency on the fringes of the city, Joyce represents no one. 

Neither of them, nor the especially tin eared Nick "Nelson" Smith, are in tune with the city and aren't hearing about it's issues from constituents. 

It's interesting that all Nationals big hitters from Auckland such as Bennett  and Collins are in social facing ministry's like Justice and Welfare and are removed from the infrastructure crisis. Nicki Kaye could also be added to this list.

by Murray Grimwood on August 19, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Given my comments to your recent piece about 'infrastructure being good', Tim, you'll have investigated the problem(s) for it ahead. You also should know enough by now - given the links I've sent you - to know that you cannot have infinite growth within any finite parameter.

So how did they answer when you asked them when growth - Auckland and generally - would end? And how soon that would be? And would those extra houses magically be 'enough'? And what then? And what then? More growth and more growth and - where will they all be fed from, Tim? What farmland where?

But you didn't ask the question, did you?

I challenge you that that is not good enough on your part.

These are politicians talking as if past parameters will continue - funding and repayment and resource availability - even as interest-rates trend to zero and below, and 'quantitive easing' (when was that ever needed before?) hasn't stopped even GDP growth (and it's not a real measure) from stagnating.




by mudfish on August 19, 2016

Murray, I don't think we're on a path of infinite growth, but we are still in a period of growth that may last a few decades more, population-wise. And we've got growing pains. The discussion was about decisions being made now and presumably over the next three year term in that context. Yes, many of these decisions will have long term consequences, but there's acute short term need. I have no problem with some discussions being all about the issues immediately in front of us, even Tim's whole career if that's what interests him (and enough of us for his salary to be paid). Yes, there also need to be other discussions as well, some have floated ideas about how to cope with an ageing population, but these discussions often get shut down in the noise of more immediate issues. I don't blame Tim for that. 

Some Greens try and give future generations a voice and have trouble getting much traction, while others in the same party are more focussed on current problems. I don't know where the best place for your questions are but I doubt Tim would have got much of an answer to them in the context of the rest of the discussion, and the context of a currently growing and projected increased population.

by Murray Grimwood on August 21, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Nope, we can't be 'for a few decades more.

Exponential growth doesn't let you do that - the decades are linear, the growth is not. There is no point in 'concentrating on current problems' if the actions are continuing to create bigger ones - it's just plain ignorant. On that basis, the Greens have moved backwards to the point where they're no use in current form.

Tim's obligation - forgive me if I'm wrong - is to ascertain as nearly as possible, the truth of the matter. Avoidance - again I stand to be corrected - doesn't qualify.

Our problem is actually one of energy supply, not just population. Our secondary one is resource-supply, which requires the energy. We have to use the remaining fossil energy (and we've burnt the best half, heading for the dregs) to create a sustainable society. If we're using the available supply just doing Business-as-Usual at the Peak, then we've got to triage something we're doing now, to make the surplus available to do the new-format build. And the supply gets worse as we're doing it. That's the inescapable physics of it.

Yet these folk are advocating 'more of the same'. Jeanette Fitzsimmons went as close as anyone with her 2013 Quaker lecture:

As for time-frame, try this:

Tim is not the only one; I'm seriously contemplating referring a Listener article (same topic) to the NZPA for the same shortcoming - oh irony! Has anyone here spotted the flaw(s) in it?

If we aren't mature enough as a society to tackle the hard question(s) head-on, we're going to end up in the situation Cuba and North Korea did. No, that's nothing to do with ideologies. They simply stopped getting supplies of energy when the USSR disintegrated. Cuba was lucky to have inspired leadership - and their approach to infrastructure/food/medicine is worthy of study.

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