As we kick into election year, I’m optimistic. Not just for my party’s prospects, but also for our country’s long-term prospects. Sure, there are many causes for alarm out there: at the time of writing it’s hard to know how economically significant the coronavirus outbreak will be. Trade wars, droughts, international tensions may create problems.
But if New Zealand is well governed, we have the agility to get through whatever is thrown at us and continue to do well.
Our primary critique of the current government is that, despite all their fine words and announcements, their poor performance so far has meant that we have missed the opportunity to succeed. Despite enjoying export prices at the highest levels in generations our economy is only muddling along at 2 per cent growth.
Private sector investment – the true driver of growth – has been held back by added costs, massive policy uncertainty and a gathering sense of government incompetence.
Until now, the by-word for that incompetence has been Kiwibuild. Phil Twyford and Jacinda Ardern’s breezy promise to build 100,000 houses collapsed into a farce. Ms Ardern’s untimely intervention into the occupation at Ihumatao has directly stopped more houses being built than the entire $2 billion Kiwibuild project so far.
But that is rivalled now by the collapse of the government’s transport policy.
Most people celebrated at the start of the year when the government announced they would invest in building some roads – including a second route south along Mill Road and a few others in the Auckland area.
But we should recognise that the announcement represents an abject abandonment of their previous transport policy, after two years of failure.
The transport policy for the first two years of this government was to stop all of National’s roads, which Phil Twyford and Julie-Anne Genter portrayed as evil and misguided, and replace them with the grand light rail project down Dominion Road.
Two years later, at the time of writing, we are still none the wiser as to what the purpose of the Light Rail project is – rapid public transport to the airport or urban regeneration down Dominion Road. Commencement is years away.
Meantime, while all the official attention was devoted to the great Light Rail, no progress was made on anything else. The critical rail projects which everyone agreed needed to happen – a third rail line between the port and South Auckland, which would enable more freight be carried from the port without clogging up commuter rail services, and the electrification of rail to Pukekohe – stalled.
Two and half years into government and in election year, the government has panicked and abandoned its policy and returned to National’s – proudly announcing it will build the roads.
So, we have wasted more than two years. Remember, big infrastructure projects are a bit like the old lawn mower – easy to turn off, but a devil of a think to start again – people, skills, capital and equipment have been allocated elsewhere and have to be regathered before projects that were ready to start at the end of 2017 can actually start.
And Aucklanders naturally look at Labour and the Greens and feel that their heart really isn’t in the new announcements. The Greens are livid that roads are back on the books and will do their best to thwart the plans.
Everyone knows that Jacinda Ardern is world class at announcements, but simply can’t deliver.
Aucklanders, meantime, just want to see progress on transport. Our population is growing fast, we need to continue to invest in public transport and roads.
The Government’s plans are half-hearted and incomplete. The critical East-West Link is nowhere to be seen. The National opposition will have a strong story to tell as the year unfolds, building on our track record of delivering major projects.