Bryce Edwards: Ferries, infrastructure, and the year in politics

Bryce Edwards: Ferries, infrastructure, and the year in politics

Political commentators and journalists are dismayed by what has happened to the Kiwirail Interislander ferry upgrade project. Ever since the bombshell dropped on Wednesday that the new Government was essentially cancelling the funding of the “mega ferries”, there has been some hard-hitting analysis and blame published.

The most trenchant has been from former National Infrastructure and Finance Minister Steven Joyce, who unsurprisingly lays the blame at the feet of the former government – see: Labour’s record – so much spent, so little achieved (paywalled). Looking back at how the Kiwirail project unfolded in conjunction with Labour Government funding, which blew out by billions of dollars, Joyce asks: “How could any Government preside over such a slow-moving train wreck for so long?”

He argues that the big mistake in the project was being diverted from the use of straightforward roll-on, roll-off ferries: “The interisland ferry decision was the wrong one from the start. As Finance Minister in 2017, I clearly recall being advised that rail-enabled ferries would be a big, expensive mistake in this day and age. All over the world they were being retired, and virtually nobody was building new ones. The market had long since voted with its feet and we should too. Interestingly, at that time KiwiRail agreed.”

In general, the infrastructure plans of Labour were doomed, he argues, because of 1) Labour’s ill-defined obsession with being transformational, 2) Covid causing them to think they had endless money to spend without need for proper processes, 3) Labour’s fear of using the private sector, and only trusting the public service, and 4) the obsession with restructuring and centralising instead of delivering.

An opposing view is put forward by leftwing political commentator Gordon Campbell who blames the cancellation of the new ferries on Nicola Willis’ obsession with finding ways to deliver her promised, but arguably unaffordable, tax cuts – see: On the ferry follies of Nicola Willis. Campbell also points out that it’s all about priorities: “The ferries project’s total cost – circa $3 billion – is the same amount that we have spent without a second thought on buying and kitting out four surveillance aircraft for the Defence Force.”

The NZ Herald in the weekend concurred on the role of National’s tax cuts driving the cancellation, arguing, “The National Party has also effectively tied its own hand with a commitment to income tax cuts that look increasingly unaffordable in the present economic climate” – see: Editorial: What price security on Cook Strait? (paywalled). The newspaper also points out that the ferries are actually affordable, as “Crown debt position is not dire. It remains low by international standards”.

Abandoning the planned ferry upgrade is likely to be false economy according to the Herald editorial. And such vital infrastructure is urgently needed: “As has been proved many times this year, the route requires powerful, up-to-date vessels, with plenty of back-up, and not clapped-out hand-me-downs from other countries.”

Yesterday’s Sunday Star Times editorial by Tracey Watkins makes similar arguments, stating “it’s obvious that New Zealand has unique characteristics that make a gold-plated ferry service between the North and South Island desirable, if not mandatory” – see: Getting ferries on the cheap isn’t the right answer either (paywalled).

Watkins laments that the new Government is falling into the same trap of successive administrations that have failed to properly upgrade infrastructure: “It also epitomises the story of New Zealand’s increasingly dilapidated infrastructure. As a country we’ve mythologised the number-eight-wire, she’ll-be-right mentality to such an extent that we balk at costly solutions when a bodged option might suffice. But cheap isn’t going to cut it any more. We have a tsunami of infrastructure decisions rushing at us and it’s going to require some tough choices about our priorities.”

The Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan made similar arguments in the weekend, being unconvinced by the Government’s decision, arguing that the current ferries are “a clear and present danger” and their replacement can’t be delayed – see: Cook Strait ferry debacle another sign of Labour’s loose spending (paywalled).

But she lays the blame for the delay clearly at Labour’s feet, saying that the ferry debacle is just another infrastructure failure like Three Waters, Auckland Light Rail, and a second Auckland harbour crossing: “This failure to appropriately cost, fund and implement major infrastructure projects is a damning epitaph for the Labour Government.”

But one of the most thoughtful analyses of the ferry failure is from Nick Leggett, who argues for a new approach to how New Zealand handles big infrastructure issues: “The reality is, if we don’t change how we do things and face up to our responsibilities as a nation, our infrastructure deficit will continue to grow with severe consequences for our communities as a result” – see: Ferry saga highlights failure of New Zealand’s infrastructure planning (paywalled).

Leggett’s analysis published in The Post, concludes: “We need to learn from this ferry debacle by building a trusted pipeline that will guide and direct major infrastructure decisions. We need one robust government agency that can advise, procure and scrutinise where taxpayer money is invested, along with welcoming private capital so we can build more projects, faster. Chopping and changing after elections isn’t sustainable and it costs us billions.”

End-of-year summaries and big-picture forecasts for 2024 are starting to roll in. Newstalk’s political editor Jason Walls has put forward his Top five political moments of 2023 (paywalled), which are: 1) Jacinda Ardern resigns, 2) National wins the election, 3) Kiri Allen arrested, 4) Michael Wood’s share saga, and 5) “Winston’s back, baby!”

Winston Peters is also the 2023 Politician of the Year (paywalled)according to Herald political editor Claire Trevett. She argued in the weekend that Peters beats out the new Prime Minister for the title because he’s made a big comeback, and now has major “influence, power and relevancy”.

The Spinoff’s end-of-year political panel has also assigned Winston Peters as a “Champ” of the year – alongside Te Pati Māori and Christopher Luxon, who all got nominated for the title by six out 11 of panellists – see: The champs and flops of NZ politics in 2023.

Looking forward to the next year, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass says that the new Government is establishing a new path of change that it wants to cement in as the redefined new centre of politics – see: 2024 will be about the battle for the political centre (paywalled).

Malpass argues that the new government looks likely to be the first real government of reform in a long time: “Whereas John Key got elected on not being too scary after Helen Clark, and Jacinda Ardern basically managed the same after the Key-English administrations, the current Government was elected on a clear change platform.” And despite current protests and condemnations of its reform programme, “The next three years will look very different to the past three. And the Government’s ability to deliver what it has promised will be a key metric.”

Newstalk’s Heather du Plessis-Allan makes some similar points in must-read column about the state of politics in 2023 and the year ahead – see: Life is different. Will next year be normal? (paywalled). In this she argues that since Covid hit in 2020, the only constant in politics is flux and radicalism, and that the turmoil and division is likely to continue for some time yet.

Du Plessis-Allan outlines how the “the happier days of peace and prosperity” are over: “We’ve had political agreement since the 1990s. Since then one government after the next has not been too dissimilar from the the one before it. The difference between the Helen Clark Labour-led Government and the John Key National-led Government wasn’t as big as voters think. But now, we’ve swung from the most left-wing government of recent times yet to the most right-wing.”

The Greens are going loom large in the upcoming year, especially in Wellington where, according to the Spinoff, they are “the dominant force within Te-Whanganui-a-Tara” – see Joel MacManus’ The big tests for Wellington’s Greens in 2024. This is because the party essentially holds the mayoralty, much of the city council, and now two electorate seats. The article also points out that in the recent election the party vote across the Wellington City boundaries was: Green 30%, Labour 26.2%, National 25.3%.

But the Greens in power have a “massive challenge” to satisfy voters according to MacManus, as they now need to deliver on vital issues like transport and housing in the city, and he says that Tory Whanau’s first draft 10-year-budget is a “dud”, involving “cuts across the board” and rate hikes.

The capital is still burgeoning with public servants according to the latest Public Service Commission data. The most recent quarterly data shows that in just three months, the public service grew by 1105 full-time equivalent staff – that’s a 1.8 per cent increase. More detail is available in Anna Whyte’s Post story, Spending up on public service contractors, consultants (paywalled). According to this, the public service spent $269.5m on contractors and consultants in the three months to the end of September. Also, the number of communications staff grew to 513.5 equivalent full-time staff.

Finally, for a Woman’s Weekly magazine profile on how New Zealand’s “first family” will be spending the holidays, see Sophie Neville’s Christopher and Amanda Luxon share their family Christmas traditions.

 

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

This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz)