Bryce Edwards: Our politicians are competent firefighters, but terrible builders

Bryce Edwards: Our politicians are competent firefighters, but terrible builders

The Labour Government has once again proven itself to be very competent in a crisis. Cyclone Gabrielle has allowed Prime Minister Chris Hipkins to demonstrate his impressive disaster management communication.

Labour is very good with the political firefighting required to deal with such disasters – as they have shown in the past with their response to the Christchurch mosque attack, the Whakaari White Island eruption, and the initial stages of Covid.

And, in fact, the last National Government wasn’t too bad at crisis management either. John Key and Bill English received plaudits for the way they dealt with the global financial crisis, the Pike River disaster, and the Canterbury earthquakes.

And yet, both Labour and National have proven to be atrocious at longer-term planning and investment in the things that really matter. The big problems of society never get the attention they deserve and, slowly but surely, those problems mount up, unaddressed, and actually start producing more and more crises – such as the disasters of the last month – which politicians are then forced to react to.

The Polycrisis exposed

We now have a “polycrisis” of problems blighting New Zealand, which our politicians seem unwilling or unable to properly address. The term “polycrisis” is being used around the world to denote simultaneous challenges that are often linked and reinforcing: climate change, infrastructure deficits, inflation, economic inequality, Covid, and war.

The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan highlighted last week that polycrisis had been the word most used at the recent Davos meeting of world elites, but he suggested “permacrisis” – the Collins dictionary “word of the year” – was more apt, which he defined as “the sense of living through an unfolding sequence of crises.”

New Zealand’s political polycrisis has been made worse by the weather events of the last weeks. The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive explains this, saying: “Because Auckland’s floods and Cyclone Gabrielle did not land on a country which was running smoothly. They dropped into one which was suffering through that debilitating modern phenomenon known as the polycrisis: interlinked crises covering inflation, housing, infrastructure, health and more, all operating against and influenced by the climate crisis.”

Labour and National’s infrastructure deficit

At the centre of New Zealand’s polycrisis is an infrastructure deficit in which roads, communications systems, stormwater infrastructure, electricity transmission, hospitals, schools, and so forth, haven’t been adequately funded and built for the requirements of the 21st century.

On top of the infrastructure deficit are other crises created by a lack of attention given to inequality, climate change, and housing. These are massive issues that the current Labour Government continues to pay lip service to but, in nearly six years in power, has done little about. Similarly, previous governments have allowed these crises to worsen.

The problem for the Government and the Opposition is that all of these huge but long-term problems are being starkly exposed –  especially by last week’s Cyclone Gabrielle. The risk for the politicians is that the polycrisis and infrastructure deficit will be blamed on them. These things threaten to upend current politics, producing something of a reckoning for our short-term focused political class.

Criticism of politicians is noticeably increasing. Across the political spectrum over the last two weeks there have been some thoughtful critiques made of the failures of successive governments. Newstalk’s Heather du Plessis-Allan has typified this in pointing the finger at Labour and National for constantly avoiding fixing our problems properly.

For instance, Du Plessis-Allan said last week Labour and National are too inclined to “do things on the cheap” with infrastructure, but this cutting of corners just produces more problems for our roading networks, electricity transmission, and so forth. She points out that even before the weather disasters of this month, the infrastructure deficit had reached $210 billion, which means politicians now have some hard questions to face.

Duncan Grieve of the Spinoff has also made a severe critique of the way that the current Minister of Finance Grant Robertson – along with his predecessors – have deliberately ignored investing in critical infrastructure merely so they can parade their low debt figures, and relatively low taxes, to business audiences and the like.

Grieve says it’s “embarrassing” that Robertson and other finance ministers are so proud of the fact that they have underfunded infrastructure in order to be able to boast of their financial nous. And he laments that whenever anyone advocates much higher infrastructure spending they are denounced by Labour or National as being “Muldoonist”.

And yet much of our infrastructure is stuck back in the 1960s, well before Rob Muldoon’s time. As Josie Pagani wrote this week, “This web of pipes and cables is much the same as it was 50 years ago. Like the old ships we send across the Cook Strait, still breaking down like it’s 1968. As I write this, the traffic into Wellington is at a standstill. Trains aren’t running. It’s only raining. We’re not just falling behind in infrastructure. We are falling behind in the politics of sorting it out.”

So much of the tragedy that has been inflicted on the North Island in the cyclone and flooding is a result of political decisions – or failure to make decisions. For example, Herald political editor Claire Trevett gave one good example last week: “The cyclone is already highlighting issues that should have been dealt with by the government – and by governments before it: Tairawhiti residents have been calling for something to be done about slash from forestry for years now. Yet nothing has been done. Lo, the slash came down again and farms were hammered again.”

An Opportunity to focus on the polycrisis rather than political gain

Pressure now needs to be applied to New Zealand’s political class to break out of the infrastructure deficit in which low debt and low taxation rank as the most important metrics in evaluating their worth as political leaders.

There has been some progress in this regard. In the last week or so, politicians have suddenly woken up to the need to invest in the bigger problems.

For instance, Christopher Luxon said last week: “we need to invest now very strongly in climate adaptation and infrastructure… we can’t go rebuilding roads that keep getting wiped out and then get wiped out at the next event.” Similarly, Grant Robertson has spoken of the need to invest in infrastructure. But without any pressure applied on such politicians, these words are unlikely to go far beyond lip service.

Part of this means dealing with climate change – both in terms of mitigation and adaptation, with the latter being where the new infrastructure debate is heading. There are now many billion-dollar questions about how we plan and shape the physical environment to adjust to the reality of the changing climate.

Building houses will continue to be a major focus – or at least it should be. The current government, in particular, came to power on a campaign about the housing crisis but has turned out to be particularly bad at building houses. Despite the PR hype about a small amount of construction, it is negligible against the size of the housing crisis. Kiwibuild continues to be a farce, and state housing is tiny, contributing to the levels of homelessness and accommodation need.

The problem is we have plenty of brilliant disaster management politicians, but seemingly no politicians who are good at forward-thinking and with the courage to do the right thing. Do-nothing conservatism won’t cut it anymore after recent weather disasters have exposed the extent of the crisis. And the politicians can’t say that the media or public aren’t on board for grappling with the big issues. We have seen in recent weeks just how much appetite there now is for a focus on fixing things.

The Herald recently published an editorial about the cyclone recovery titled “Sticking plasters aren’t enough for these wounds” in which the newspaper explained that “the country faces problems that are decades in the making” but that there is an appetite to grapple with the costs involved, which might be huge. The editorial said, “Some solutions could be more expensive in the short-term but are better for the long term than constantly going through temporary fixes.”

Unfortunately, much of the political debate about the cyclone recovery is still more about how the current crisis might help or disadvantage the electoral position of particular parties and politicians. The expectation is that politicians will once again revert to type, making their calculations about what rebuild policies will help them win or lose the election. Or indeed about what hi-viz jacket and TV coverage will help in the next opinion poll.

That’s to be expected. And in a “bread and butter election” there will naturally be a need for politicians to give the public some immediate succour from their various cost of living crises. But there’s also a need to finally “think big”, even at the risk of being labelled a “Muldoonist”.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Other items of interest and importance today

Matthew Hooton (Herald): It’s too late to avoid climate change – now we have to adapt(paywalled)
Toby Morris (The Spinoff): The Side Eye: A climate change reality check
Mark Blackham (Herald): Why Cyclone Gabrielle warnings went unheeded (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Cyclone Gabrielle has fundamentally changed the political debate: Building state capacity – who to tax & how
Gordon Campbell: The mauling of Maureen Pugh, Looting myths and
Banking on the cyclone

Brent Edwards (NBR): The Reserve Bank, the cyclone, taxes, climate change
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): The case for an NZ Reconstruction Authority
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Cyclone tax: Adrian Orr says there would be precedents for ‘levy’
Russell Palmer (Newsroom): Willis says tax cuts won’t require borrowing – but cyclone will
Eric Crampton: Paying for cyclones
Newshub: Cyclone Gabrielle: Windfall profit tax to support cleanup would make New Zealand ‘Sicilian mafioso country’ – David Seymour
Bridie Witton (Stuff): Will disasters like Cyclone Gabrielle widen the city-rural divide?
Ben Moore (BusinessDesk): Cyclone Gabrielle and the failure in communication(s)(paywalled)
RNZ: Health Minister details services for cut-off East Coast
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): Please don’t profiteer: Rising prices worry builders in cyclone aftermath
Amelia Wade (Newhub): Cyclone Gabrielle: Chris Hipkins climbs down from criticised crime claims as roadworker says politicians are ‘covering backside’
Rachel Maher (Herald): Cyclone Gabrielle: Road workers who had guns pulled on them in Hawke’s Bay, dispute Prime Minister’s ‘third-hand’ information claim
1News: ‘Disinformation’ spreading about cyclone crime – Gisborne police
Jane Patterson (RNZ): Victim of attempted break-in at cyclone-damaged Puketapu house pleads for more back-up
Alex Lo and Faith Chan (The Conversation): NZ cities urgently need to become ‘spongier’ – but system change will be expensive
Newshub: Government announces new recovery visa for overseas workers to support Cyclone Gabrielle rebuild
RNZ: New visa set up to bring in specialised workers for post-cyclone rebuild
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): Cyclone recovery visa – is six months enough? (paywalled)
Gisborne Herald: Cyclone Gabrielle: Dispute over Genesis Energy’s role in Wairoa flooding
Waatea News: Hipkins says treaty approach needed for recovery effort
Rebecca Stevenson (Interest): Rockit Apple boss says growers need wage subsidy

Herald Editorial: Beehive took far too long to tackle East Coast forestry waste trauma(paywalled)
Andrea Fox (Herald): Forestry waste: Slashed – Government announces inquiry, how East Coast lost its social licence (paywalled)
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Government orders inquiry into forestry slash after Cyclone Gabrielle
Hawke’s Bay Today: Chris Hipkins takes on forestry, before bad weather shuts down his Hawke’s Bay visit
RNZ: Inquiry into forestry slash announced
Kiwiblog: Policy on Forestry Slash

Peter Dunne: Freedom of expression means hearing views that are outside the mainstream
Eric Crampton: Entrance tests for MPs?
Mike Hosking (Newstalk ZB): Maureen Pugh was ill-informed, but she’s allowed her opinion
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Labour minister Michael Wood regrets referring to Simon Bridges’ comments about Maureen Pugh being ‘useless’

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Parliament debates Three Waters entrenchment: National’s Chris Bishop – ‘You’re making my head hurt’ (paywalled)
Peter Dunne (Newsroom): Why National won’t panic as it did in 2020
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Luxon’s puzzling brain fade
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Tony Sutorius on politicians, documentary and ‘telling the truth about being dishonest’
Stewart Sowman-Lund (Spinoff): Jami-Lee Ross, ‘Tex’, and the $30,000 Advance NZ donation
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Efeso Collins seeks Greens’ nomination, says Labour takes south Auckland ‘for granted’
Newshub: David Seymour calls Chlöe Swarbrick ‘by far the most sensible Green MP’
Audrey Young (Herald): Parliament’s debating chamber – updated seating plan (paywalled)

Riley Kennedy (BusinessDesk): Reserve Bank’s Orr: Cutting OCR in light of cyclone ‘makes no sense’ (paywalled)
Michael Reddell: A couple of MPS thoughts
Arena Wililiams and Stuart Smith (Stuff): New Zealand’s prices have continued to surge at a painfully fast pace

David Hargreaves (Interest): RBNZ: Homeowners could be spending 22% of disposable income on mortgage interest by year-end
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Interest expected to eat up 22pc of mortgage holders’ disposable incomes (paywalled)
Greg Ninness (Interest): Big regional differences in median rent movements last year
Miriam Bell (Stuff): House price slide expected to continue into next year, survey shows
RNZ: Mortgage interest rates may be slowing but still high – CoreLogic
Tina Law (Press): Christchurch’s answer to Government’s housing density mandate makes almost half the city exempt
Erin Gourley (Stuff): How a suburban train line became the focal point for Wellington’s housing debate

Erin Johnson (Stuff): Auckland Council opposes Three Waters bills
Todd Niall (Stuff): Auckland Council weeks away from estimating cost of storm and Cyclone Gabrielle
Sam Brooks (Spinoff): Is $41 million in savings worth the decimation of Auckland’s community and culture?
Erin Johnson (Stuff): Plan for bike paths through central Auckland suburbs shelved
Andrew Bevin (Newsroom): Ports of Auckland fighting to secure its future
RNZ: Auckland Airport delivers first underlying profit in two-and-a-half years

Susan Botting (Local Democracy Reporting): Kaipara councillor vows to continue fight against mayor’s ban on karakia
Stephen Ward (Waikato Times): City growth strategy gets go ahead despite flood-related concerns
Janine Rankin (Manawatū Standard): Palmerston North proposed rates rise could be close to double figures
Nicholas Boyack (Stuff): Hutt City residents in line for 9.9% rate rise
Grant Miller (ODT): Dunedin City Council goes for 6.5% rates rise
ODT: Plans for ORC’s central city HQ finalised
Hamish McNeilly (Stuff): New plans for Otago Regional Council’s HQ revealed

RNZ: Government announces further Russia sanctions on anniversary of invasion
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Supporting Ukraine against Vladimir Putin is about defending a world where might is not right
Josie Pagani (Stuff): ‘Whataboutery’ is cynicism. Support for Ukraine must continue
Robert Patman (Newsroom): Is New Zealand doing enough for Ukraine?
Bruce Munro (ODT): Global Insight: Will Hipkins take tougher line on Ukraine?
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Ukraine – A Year of War: How New Zealand responded – and what could be next for our support
Thomas Manch (Stuff): PM says NZ will never ‘turn our back’ on Ukraine, a year after invasion
Gill Bonnett (RNZ): Russia-Ukraine war: Ukrainians in New Zealand seek certainty on visa extension
Anna Whyte (Stuff): New Zealand to make climate change pledge as Pacific leaders meet amid regional tension
Anna Whyte (Stuff): Carmel Sepuloni meets Fijian PM ahead of ‘important’ Pacific gathering

Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Government spends $62 million on promotional, education campaigns to ‘support Road to Zero’
Jaime Lyth (Herald): Could Northland’s terrible roads be helped by rail? (paywalled)
Tom Taylor (RNZ): Auckland light rail ‘absolutely’ going ahead – Transport Minister
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): Labour’s light rail at the end of the tunnel
Zane Small (Newshub): Auckland light rail survives policy purge, but completed plans still two years away
1News: National’s Simeon Brown takes aim at Auckland ‘light fail’ project
Conor Knell (Dominion Post): Bus fares rise by 6% across Wellington from April
Federico Magrin (Stuff): Aviation bill fails to protect passengers’ rights when ‘shirked’ around by airlines
Maia Hart (Local Democracy Reporting): Picton overflows as ferry passengers wait for a sailing spot
Oliver Lewis (BusinessDesk): Greater Christchurch mass rapid transit corridors identified(paywalled)

Rachel Smalley (Today FM): The damning OIA that pits Pharmac against the Government
Rachel Smalley (NBR): OIA release timing reveals Pharmac’s broken culture (paywalled)
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): All I ask is for Pharmac to apologise for it’s mistakes
Krystal Gibbens (RNZ): Long Covid patients plead for better job, health protections
Ripu Bhatia (Stuff): Pregnant Maori and Pacific women getting poor vaccine info, research shows
Hannah Martin (Stuff): Measles: Health body texting, emailing young people who may be undervaccinated
Hannah Martin (Stuff): Covid-19: Pfizer bivalent booster to be available for over 30s ahead of winter
RNZ: New bivalent Covid-19 vaccine booster to be available to over-30s

Brianna Mcilraith (Stuff): By the numbers: Who is eating all of our food if we make enough to feed 40 million people?
RNZ: Air NZ boss Greg Foran says cheaper airfares at least a year away, despite profit
Dan Brunskill (BusinessDesk): Air NZ could have made ‘even more profit’ – Foran(paywalled)
Anan Zaki (RNZ): How Air New Zealand went from crash landing to stratospheric
RNZ: Air NZ reports $213m profit as passenger demand rebounds
Gareth Vaughan (Interest): Kiwibank CEO says record first-half profit won’t be repeated in second-half of bank’s financial year as MP raises idea of bank levy
Gareth Vaughan (Interest): Kiwibank interim profit surges 53% to record high
Jenny Ruth (BusinessDesk): Kiwibank lifted 1H profit 53% as lending surged (paywalled)
Dita De Boni (NBR): Don’t be caught chillaxing when new Holidays Act comes to pass(paywalled)
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk ZB): If a four day week increases productivity and employee happiness, surely it’s a win-win

Chris Keall (Herald): TVNZ profit slumps by two-thirds, CEO looks beyond abandoned merger
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): TVNZ interim profit drops by a third with ‘economic headwinds ahead’
Daniel Dunkley (BusinessDesk): TVNZ-RNZ merger plan ‘not a wasted exercise’ – Power(paywalled)
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): R16 or AO? MP’s question about Naked Attraction raises a point on media regulation

RNZ: Law change to fix 501 deportees’ parole error passes under urgency
RNZ: Majority of Whakatōhea iwi agree to push on with Treaty settlement
Julia de Bres (Stuff): Semantic bleaching and the hijacking of ‘woke’
Christine Rovoi (Stuff): ‘Be fair’: Government urged to revisit Te Matatini funding
Spinoff: Yes, Harry Styles will have to do the Census
Bob Jones: A political agenda for New Zealand