Steven Joyce: Labour takes a ride on a bridge to nowhere

OPINION:

In the space of twoweeks, a series of political events have underlined a growing gap. That’s the gap between the views of a small and comparatively wealthy inner-city liberal eliteon the future of our society, and the daily lived experience of most ordinary Kiwis.

The first was the “liberate the lane” protest, where a group of Auckland councillors, MPs and cycling activists decided to commandeer a quarter of the capacity of Auckland’s main central transport artery because they want the “right” to cycle occasionally across the Waitematā Harbour.

This, of course, would come at the expense of all the other people whohave to use the bridge every day to get to work, school, education, hospital, and the myriad other reasons they need it.

Hard on the heels of that protest came the Government’s re-jig of its so-called New Zealand Upgrade programme, a series of infrastructure projects that were supposed to upgrade the country, but which have so far turned out to be a mirage.

In it, ministers announced that many of the projects have doubled or more in cost, a scandal in itself. They then cancelled most of the important ones, like long-awaited transport corridors in regional areas and in South Auckland, while coming up with a new idea out of nowhere, a nearly billion-dollar pedestrianbridge and cycleway across the Waitematā.

This announcement was no doubt rushed out to appease the aforementioned cycling activists, but it remains an obscene amount of money to spend on the desires of a small inner-Auckland group at the expense of the more basic needs of people right across the country.

As the former Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard pointed out, such a bicycle bridge will move less than 1 per cent of the existing bridge traffic, while subsidising some of the wealthiest suburbs in New Zealand.

The Government has made no attempt to justify the bike bridge announcement with any sort of assessment of benefits and costs. It shouldn’t be hard to do. We now have some significant cycleways around Auckland which presumably have actual usage records, as against the theories of advocates. It would quickly become even more apparent whether this was a sensible use of taxpayer funds.

But that wasn’t all. The Transport Minister advised at the same time that he was working on setting up “safe temporary trials using lanes on the existing harbour bridge for cyclists and pedestrians”. That is, he wants to reduce the transport capacity of the existing bridge to allow this small groupto exercise their “right” to walk and bike across the harbour.

How detached from the daily reality of Auckland commuters would you need to be before thinking that was a good idea?

Meanwhile in Wellington, the Government and council are raising the white flag. Having failed to build one decent arterial road across the capital in spite of the ironically titled “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” programme, they are now floating the idea of taxing people more, in the form of a congestion charge, for the very congestion that’s been made worse by the failure to even start building a single piece of Wellington transport infrastructure in the four years they have been in office.

All of these announcements have been connected by ministers to the need to reduce carbon emissions because of climate change. Which brings us to the final event of the last fortnight, the Climate Change Commission’s report to the Government about what it “needs to do” to meet its emission targets.

The commission repeated and extended the draconian list of changes it said had to be made to our way of life in short order to beat back climate change. The most jaw-dropping part of the report was that it refused to rank its proposals by performing any sort of cost-benefit assessment.

In fact according to the chief commissioner, the commission deliberately didn’t determine its policy prescription according to benefits and costs but had instead considered its own assessment of “other” values of our society, which it considered more important. Such as using buses ahead of even battery-powered cars.

Of course this reduces the commission’s prescriptions to nothing more than a set of subjective “reckons”, no better or worse than anythingyou might hear down the pub.

Apart from the fact that the Government seems inclined, for no particular reason beyond ideology, to agree with them.

The danger in all these so-called climate change-inspired policies is that they instead start to looklike an excuse to funnel taxpayer money into leafy inner-city suburbs to build fancy cycle bridges and flash trams, and away from suburban, regional and rural New Zealand.

People there are instead expected to pay for it all with higher taxes and levies, plus the curtailment of their personal mobility and general lifestyle. A sort of “let them eat cake” approach.

It also looks like no price is too high to assuage a pressure group, and there is no ruler at all for assessing whether expenditure makes sense.

That’s going to present a problem for the Finance Minister and debt control. It’s hard to turn down big pay increases for nurses and a day out of the classroom every week for the primary teachers union when you have money to burn to build the world’s most expensive bike bridge.

The Government and the inner-city liberal elite need to return to reality — or they are going to wake up one day and find they have parted company with the concerns of most other New Zealanders.

Yes, we need to tackle climate change, but we need it to be done in a demonstrably fair and cost-effective manner and not as an excuse to justify longstanding self-serving policy prescriptions. Or the team of five million might revolt.

– Steven Joyce is a former National MP and Minister of Finance.

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