Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The time is right for permanent free public transport

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The time is right for permanent free public transport

The problem with conservative politicians is when dealing with a crisis, they’re always inclined towards doing the minimum possible in the hope that it will be enough.

The current Government is faced with several crises – including that of inequality, climate, and the rapidly rising cost of living. One response has been to halve the price of public transport for three months.

Why not go the whole way and made public transport completely free, permanently?

Getting rid of fares entirely fits with the Zeitgeist, and makes a lot of sense in terms of the aforementioned crises that the public want dealt with. Fare-free public transport could be an example of the Government doing something truly transformative, as promised.

Yes, it would be expensive. But in the greater scheme of things, it’s really not that much. We’ve learnt this week that the temporary fare cut is estimated to cost around $35m over the three months. It’s therefore been calculated that the Government could have easily just abolished fares permanently for something in the region of $320m/year (which is even less than the estimated cost of the petrol tax cuts for three months).

Indeed, the Ministry of Transport has said that although fares normally bring in about $330m, in recent years this has dropped back to about $200-250m due to Covid-induced working from home etc.

So would forgoing these fares really make a big dent in the budget for the Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency? Hardly. The agency currently raises about $4b a year through fuel taxes and road user charges. Only a tiny fraction of this currently goes into public transport.

Foregoing about $300m a year in fares is small change when it comes to climate change and the cost of living crisis. But critics will point out that the cost is likely to be higher, because more services would have to be put on to meet higher demand caused by free fares. But surely this would also be a good outcome? Having a higher proportion of the public travelling by bus and train would reduce carbon emissions, which is something the Government is seriously failing to do at the moment.

Central and local government already invest about $800m per year in running public transport, because it’s acknowledged that such services are a public good. The idea of having a part-charge, i.e. a fare, for this public good seems backwards if we really want to get people out of poverty as well as out of cars. After all, other public goods, like libraries are normally entirely free. And there is a growing awareness that things like public swimming pools should also be free. Perhaps we will one day look back and think it’s weird that we used to charge to use a public good like buses, when they are so essential for assisting public life, the economy, and the environment.

In Auckland, mayoral candidate Efeso Collins is promising fare-free travel for that city, and he estimates it would cost $160m in lost revenue, and an extra $60m to upgrade services. And it’s worth noting that Auckland’s Regional Fuel Tax has raised about $500m, of which $285m remains unspent.

A recent report from Auckland Council estimated that fare-free travel would increase public transport use by 23 per cent, decrease car use by 4 per cent, and reduce the city’s emissions by 3 per cent.

Other mayor candidates are also touting free fares as the way forward. There’s some historic precedent for this, too. Leftwing candidate Jim Anderton promised the same in his 1977 campaign, as did John Minto in 2013.

Such demands are likely to feature in many other local government election campaigns this year. And in Christchurch the regional authority is planning to introduce free fares for all under 25s, students and community service cardholders.

Recently the Helen Clark Foundation also come out with a report advocating for greater subsidisation of public transport.

There’s a shift towards fare-free travel in other parts of the world. In 2013 the city of Tallinn in Estonia was the first in Europe to abolish fares. And then in 2020 Luxembourg followed suit. All around the world, cities like Melbourne and Detroit have started to make parts of their transport network free.

Political parties are now playing catchup on this move towards free public transport.
Notably, the Greens have now come out in favour. At the last election their policy was only to make fare-free travel available for those under the age of 18. But the Greens are now seeing the sense in a more radical and universal policy where everyone benefits.

Yesterday they launched a petition for people to sign. But as Stuff political journalist Henry Cooke points out, an ulterior motive is likely to be in the mix: “such petitions are used by the political parties to “harvest email addresses of potential voters”.

So have the Greens been pressuring their coalition partner to deliver something for public transport in the Budget? Not according to party co-leader James Shaw. That they have not been leading the way on a policy that clearly has widespread support reflects how coalition management and compromise currently dominates over their core policy objectives. This is a real danger sign for minor parties in government.

Labour have hinted that they will put more money into buses and trains in the upcoming Budget. Finance Minister Grant Robertson may even have plans to make the half-price fares more permanent. But with a little more pressure applied, Robertson might even feel the need to rejig his draft Budget to come up with something more generous and radical.

Of course proper investment needs to be made in improving the services. Public transport infrastructure has been effectively run down by recent Labour and National governments, as well as by local government politicians more concerned with the needs of private car owners. Investment in infrastructure simply hasn’t kept up with increasing need and population growth. And compared to global use, New Zealand cities now have some of the lower use of public transport in the world.

There will, of course, be opposition to free public transport – especially because it might require more government spending and taxation, meaning the wealthy might see this as a lose-lose situation, in which taxes pay for something that predominantly benefits the poor. National and Act oppose fare-free public transport, with MP Simeon Brown saying yesterday that user-pays is still the best way, and customers need to make a contribution to the cost. Such politicians are always quick to add up the costs of public services, but less keen to draw attention to the benefits (which are intrinsically less quantifiable).

This has been the consensus forever, but there are some signs that Labour might be willing to break free from this. They promised to “build back better” after Covid, which surely means innovating on issues like this. They’ve promised to deal with wellbeing, growing climate emissions, infrastructure deficits and inequality. Getting rid of the petty fares would be an important example of how this could be done. Here’s a simple but effective measure that makes a big difference to all those intersecting problems. But half-measures like fare reductions won’t cut it.

Further reading on free public transport

Henry Cooke (Stuff): Green Party push to make public transport free forever
Olivia Wannan (Stuff): Calls for fare-free public transport after Government halves ticket prices
Justin Wong (Stuff): Wellington public transport fares to be halved from April 1
Herald: More than 1200 people call for free public transport, days after Government announced prices will be halve
Dita De Boni (NBR): Mayoral aspirant plugs vision of free public transport nirvana(paywalled)
Oliver Lewis (BusinessDesk): Who says there’s no such thing as a free bus (paywalled)
Today FM: Green Party wants free public transport to ease strain on Kiwi commuters
Andrew Dickens (Newstalk ZB): Does making public transport free work?

Other items of interest and importance today

Henry Cooke (Stuff): New poll has Labour ahead of National, but it’s a tight race
Reporting on the latest opinion poll carried out by Curia Research and commissioned by the Taxpayers Union, Henry Cooke says the race between left and right is tightening: “this would lead to Labour-Green government, the gap between the two blocs is just four seats – far narrower than the 16-seat gap the same poll found in September”.

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Labour just ahead in latest poll, after crash in support
Here’s the Herald’s summary of this latest poll: “Labour is on 36.2 per cent, falling 6.1 points. National is also down, but its support only fell 3.1 points to 35.3 per cent. The big winners are the Greens and Act. The Greens soared 6.1 points to 12.4 per cent, while Act climbed 4.6 points to 11.2 per cent. Te Pati Māori is on 0.2 per cent, falling 0.8 points.”

Emma Russell (Herald): Top doctor says patients waiting in hospital corridors for up to 24 hours
Covid is making New Zealand’s health system crisis worse, but it’s not the cause of it according to this frontpage Herald article today. Emergency doctor John Bonning is quoted: “Covid is an added complication but it’s not the cause of the problem and this has been predictable, so it’s a manifestation of an underfunded health system”.

Adam Jacobson (Stuff): Fletcher makes isolating workers use sick leave instead of taking Govt support
Fletcher Building says it’s “moving to a strategy of living with Covid” by forcing its employees with Covid to use sick leave when they are isolating.

James Halpin (Stuff): Government silent on why KiwiBuild-linked Russian oligarch not on travel ban list
Russian Alexander Abramov is worth US$6 billion, partly from US$1.4b profits he made in a steel company after the Russian annexation of Crimea. He now lives in New Zealand where he’s involved in the Government’s KiwiBuild project, which some suggest has prevented him from being subject to New Zealand’s new sanctions.

Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Sir Wira Gardiner, veteran and dedicated public servant, dies aged 78
The founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal and the first chief executive of Te Puni Kōkiri has died.

Matthew Tso and Ben Strang (Stuff): Transmission Gully opening: Sixth time’s a charm?
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency has given contractors a two week ultimatum to open the Transmission Gully road.

Henry Cooke (Stuff): PM Jacinda Ardern says traffic light settings and vaccine passes to be reviewed next week
Vaccine mandates and passes could soon be gone, as the Government says that the need for them will soon decline.

Thomas Manch (Stuff): Labour MPs block justice select committee hearing on Parliament riot
National MPs on the Justice select committee have tried to Police Commissioner Andrew Coster in for a hearing about the occupation of Parliament grounds, but Labour has blocked the move.

Josie Pagani (Stuff): We should dump the net zero carbon goal
Is the Government’s “net zero carbon” aspiration actually counterproductive? Josie Pagani thinks so, and puts forward some alternative climate change strategies.

Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Most parties celebrate the new history curriculum, but ACT criticises it as divisive
The Government launched the new Aotearoa New Zealand history curriculum yesterday, which will be taught from next year. Act Party deputy leader Brooke van Velden​ says the curriculum paints New Zealanders as “villains and victims”, and she accuses the curriculum of ignoring multiculturalism.

Geraden Cann (Stuff): Wait times on property transactions and subdivision approvals double at Linz
The booming construction sector is causing a significant slow-down to subdivisions approvals, changes to ownership records, and boundary changes.

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Meet Christopher Luxon’s inner circle – the people he relies on most (paywalled)
Thomas Coughlan has put together the details of who he regards as those with the most access to and influence over the new National Party leader. They are: former leader John Key, deputy Nicola Willis, MP Chris Bishop, Chief of staff Cameron Burrows, researcher Gareth Hollins, economist Matt Burgess, chief press secretary Hamish Rutherford, and press secretary Jasmine Higginson.

Matthew Hooton (Herald): National Party finance voice Nicola Willis – reluctant revolutionary? (paywalled)
Matthew Hooton profiles who he thinks will be the new Minister of Finance, and paints a picture of a highly competent moderate rather than a reformer. However, the economy she inherits next year might necessitate a radical response. He also hopes she is aware that “the power of Wellington lobbyists and special interests needs to be cut back to its pre-2008 size so the free market allocates more resources rather than politicians and bureaucrats.”

Bernard Hickey: False economies in health, water and transport (paywalled)
Here’s the summary of this piece: “Three decades of bipartisan skimping on Government spending on public infrastructure and services such as health, education and transport was always going come home to roost, and now it is at the worst possible time, in the middle of a joint public health, cost-of-living and climate crises.”

Brent Edwards (NBR): Love them or loathe them – we need politicians (paywalled)
In the wake of Simon Bridges’ departure news, NBR’s political editor makes the case for appreciating our politicians. His column begins: “This is not an unabashed defence of politicians. But love them or loathe them, politicians are essential to the political system that underpins New Zealand’s democracy.”

Wilhelmina Shrimpton (Today FM): Anti-abortion protestors: 150-metre restriction can’t come soon enough
New laws passed this week to allow safe areas of up to 150 metres around abortion clinics, preventing protests. Today FM’s Wilhelmina Shrimpton celebrates this as progress.

David Williams (Newsroom): Next year’s census will be delayed, National MP picks
Michael Woodhouse says that next year’s census is likely to be postponed. According to his inside sources “the Minister has asked for a Cabinet paper to be prepared listing the options for a delay”.

Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): From emancipation to denunciation: The sad descent of the contemporary left
The contemporary New Zealand left is caught up in backward battle of gender and ethnicity, and now ignores issues of class. That’s the view of Chris Trotter in his lament for how the forces of progress are more interested in their “desire to condemn and punish” than actually “creating a better world”.