7 Mar 2023

Emissions still in mix but weather-proofing transport network crucial - Hipkins

10:15 am on 7 March 2023
Labour Party MP Chris Hipkins

The country needs roading and rail networks that can withstand more frequent bad weather events, Chris Hipkins says. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The decision to refocus transport spending will not compromise action on climate change, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says.

The government has hit the brakes on making emissions reductions its top transport priority, saying Cyclone Gabrielle has changed everything.

Under a policy to make emissions reduction the "overarching focus" of its next three-yearly transport plan, the government wanted to reallocate some of the money normally spent on road maintenance - that tallies nearly $2 billion a year - towards bus and bike lanes.

But now the focus has switched to an emergency style plan to repair roads devastated in Cyclone Gabrielle and other recent storms.

Both National and the Greens have criticised the government's reversal.

National has called it a chaotic backpedal while the Green Party has urged the government not to defer climate change spending.

Hipkins said while Cabinet had not considered a final transport policy statement yet, with weather having so much adverse impact on the country over the last month it was essential there needed to be "a weighting" on what the transport priorities needed to be.

He disagreed there was an irony to changing the policy at this time in response to weather disasters that were being blamed on climate change.

"I don't see this as an either / or. It's not a question of whether we're mitigating climate change or whether we're adapting to it. We should actually be doing both.

"So we've got to make sure we're reducing our emissions but we've also got to make sure we've got a roading network and a rail network and a transport network that's resilient to more extreme weather events and clearly that's become a very urgent focus for us because we don't see want to see a whole lot of future events where communities get cut off as they have been in the last couple of months."

Hipkins agreed with former prime minister Jacinda Ardern's reference to climate change as "this generation's nuclear-free moment".

It was in front of people right now, however, the onus was on the government to deliver "the best bang for buck", he told Morning Report.

Even if the country had more electric vehicles they needed to be able to use an efficient roading system while there was no question better public transport was needed while more cycleways were also part of the mix.

"I am a cyclist - I'm very supportive of them."

Rebuild must not be at expense of cutting pollution - Greens

Green MP Julie-Anne Genter

Julie Anne Genter. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The Green Party is urging the government to keep climate as a key priority when it comes to transport funding.

Transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said while it was important to rebuild better after the cyclone and other weather events, it was also essential to focus on reducing the pollution that was causing the devastating storms "or they will get worse".

"But there's also an opportunity to get much better outcomes from a more climate-resilient transport system."

She accused the government of making short-term decisions that would have long-term consequences, mainly as a response to criticism from the National Party who she said were "bad faith actors" in the climate debate.

National had claimed redesigning urban streets would come at the expense of fixing potholes and other maintenance spending would be reduced as funds were redirected towards bus lanes or cycleways.

Genter said when streets were ripped up and resealed it was sensible to add a bus lane or a bike lane at the same time if they had already been proposed.

She disagreed funding for road maintenance would be reduced if more climate-friendly transport options were offered.

The government's review of the transport policy statement might be useful if funding for proposed urban highways was re-directed to fixing up rural roads as well as improving public transport and walking and cycling options in the cities.

"We have expensive roading networks in our cities. They just get clogged up because there's too many cars because people don't have alternatives."

Genter said many countries had switched from very car-dependent urban areas "to balanced transport systems".

There would have been a backlash, however, strong leadership that included the Greens could find a way, she said.

It was not about forcing people out of their cars. Many New Zealanders wanted to ride bikes if it was safe or to use public transport if services were more frequent.

"There is a real opportunity here to make it easier for people to do what they want to do and that's got to be better for the climate and it's not forcing anyone to do what they don't want to do."

Still too many consultants

The prime minister said he was not a huge fan of using external consultants if in-house expertise was available, however, he supported their use in areas like IT and building and construction.

Ultimately, ministry chief executives decided whether consultants needed to be used, however, the government had made it clear as much work as possible should be done in-house.

The message had been repeated "many times" over the last five years, he said.

"There's a valid point here. I think there is still too much use of consultants and contractors in the public service."

Hipkins also defended the $1.2 billion bill the government has paid for consultants. He said they tended to be used on the one-off big reform programmes or major capital spend items.

Using education as an example, he said consultants were used for designs of new schools, so that meant using architects and project managers. The other area was IT, which was "a contractor consultant-led profession" who have been replacing some of the IT systems used by the Ministry of Education.

All up, $237 million has been spent on consultants in the education sector.

"Some of the Ministry of Education spend in this area is driven by a very high-profile public failure. So if you take Novopay for example, I think the reviews of that found that the systems and processes they had in place were not good enough."

Hipkins said in contrast to past practice, government departments routinely undertook an external review before "going live" with a new project to verify the advice being provided.

This was not done with the likes of Novopay, he said.

National has claimed it would find savings of $400 million in the use of consultants and contractors if it became the government.

Hipkins responded: "That wasn't the experience of them the last time they were in government. Actually, all the examples they are using is expenditure that's already happened."

He compared National's promise to make these savings to pay for its newly announced childcare policy to a household using a gardener and then saying the person was too expensive and they would do the work themselves next time.

"You don't get to respend the money that you've already spent on the gardener which is what they're proposing to do."

Asked to give a commitment that spending on consultants would be reduced, he said the government wanted to put "downward pressure" on such spending but he could not promise because it might be part of a process of vital decisions such as building a new school.

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