Week in Politics: Billions to be spent and most of it on roads

7:07 pm on 13 December 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The "do nothing" government announces a big spend-up on infrastructure, moving the Port of Auckland is now a "when and where" question and Winston Peters throws his weight behind NZME's bid to buy Stuff.

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Finance Minister Grant Robertson Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The government seemed intent on living up to its new "we're doing it" slogan this week when Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced a $12 billion infrastructure spend over the next four years.

It will borrow and go into deficit to do it but with details due to be revealed in February and probably drip-fed during election year, Labour clearly wants voters to know it is delivering.

And it will be delivering roads - $6.8 billion worth. That's a big turn around and RNZ has reported scrapped National Party projects are in the mix.

The previous government's Roads of National Significance programme was scorned by Labour in opposition.

NZTA Chairman Sir Brian Roche

NZTA chair Sir Brian Roche Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Now NZTA chair Sir Brian Roche has told a select committee it would be fair to say that some of them are among the "shovel ready" projects it has put in front of the government.

Robertson's rationale is that it's the right time to take advantage of low-interest rates and future-proof the transport system. The spending will also help stimulate the economy.

The Reserve Bank has been suggesting - without too much subtlety - it should do exactly that.

There are also political aspects at play here.

National has been hammering away at the "do nothing" government for months, claiming it's "year of delivery" is a joke and "transformation" an even bigger laugh.

With the latest opinion poll showing National on 46 percent and Labour on 39 percent, the government may be thinking those attacks are hitting home and it has to do something.

It didn't get any praise from the opposition, however. National's finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith accused it of squandering the surpluses it inherited from the previous government.

"The government is pulling the economy down with one hand through added costs, uncertainty and incompetence, and trying to pull it up with the other through more debt," he said. "It's confused, incoherent and chaotic."

The Greens aren't rocking the boat over spending so much money on roads when they favour public transport but they must be upset about it.

Labour can't afford to worry about that.

National has been picking up on the Greens influence, believing voters aren't comfortable with it.

Consider the way it is campaigning to bring forward the construction of a second Mt Victoria tunnel in Wellington, which was pushed back to 2029 because of pressure from the Greens.

Transport spokesman Chris Bishop and local list MP Nicola Willis are on the case with billboards and a petition for bottlenecked commuters to sign.

And Labour's coalition partner NZ First is unhappy about the way another huge infrastructure project is being handled.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday said it was a matter of when and where the Port of Auckland should be moved because it wasn't going to be viable in the future for it to stay where it is. That was a significant comment which didn't get much traction because White Island erupted around the same time.

The government is now on record as having decided the port has to move, a success for Winston Peters and Shane Jones who want it shifted to Northland and have been working hard to gain a commitment.

However, NZ First is far from happy about how long that's going to take.

Another report released on Thursday recommended moving the port to Northland but Transport Minister Phil Twyford effectively put it on hold.

"We just believe that such a mammoth infrastructure decision, such a huge cost of investment ... that requires really credible analysis and evidence," he said.

Mr Peters wants the green light to be switched on now, and clearly thinks his cabinet colleagues are dragging the chain.

"The fact is, when faced with inevitability then you should act," he said. "There have been 17 reports on this matter and I don't think (the delay is) anything other than what Norm Kirk would call 'paralysis by analysis'."

NZ First wants this done and dusted well before the election, for the very good reason that it wants to again hold the Northland seat in Parliament. Mr Peters won it in a by-election in 2015 but lost it to National in the 2017 general election.

The party has no electorate seats at present and without one it has to gain 5 percent of the vote to survive. An electorate seat exempts it from the party vote threshold.

Deputy prime minister and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.

Winston Peters throws support behind NZME's buyout of Stuff. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

On an entirely different matter, Mr Peters surprised the media, or most of it, by calling a press conference on Thursday to announce he was backing NZME's bid to buy Stuff.

There were senior NZME executives there, so they knew about it. After offering rare praise for the media and talking about its vital role in upholding democracy, Mr Peters said the fourth estate was getting lost in the digital world and faced collapse.

He believed it was in the national interest for NZME and Stuff to become a single organisation and he supported the notion of government involvement through a Kiwishare arrangement that would protect Stuff's mastheads and employees.

Mr Peters confirmed he had been lobbied by both organisations to support NZME's bid. His public announcement in the Beehive theatrette was apparently intended to encourage Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi to take it to Cabinet.

Whether the government back it or not, the bid would have to go to the Commerce Commission which previously rejected a merger. That decision was upheld by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

The commission said it hadn't received any fresh proposals, and if it did they would be considered on merit.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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