NZ First tries to claim moral high ground in airport rail debate

Recently in transport news there has been a lot of debate over the shelving of the Auckland light rail to the airport proposals. Much of that has centred around the role played by NZ First which is implacably opposed to the development, to the extent that their representatives have waged an acromonious campaign throughout the news media and the rail community for the abandonment of the light rail development that has been a flagship Labour/Greens policy this term of government.

To understand the nature of this we have to dig deeply into NZ First itself and its political objectives and imperatives. New Zealand First is Winston Peters’ personal political vehicle which evolved out of his split from the National Party in the early 1990s. Although it is called a party and involves other people, it is and has always been unlike most other parties in NZ in the fact that it is best characterised as a populist personality cult revolving around the leader himself. This is best understood when we examine that NZF has only ever had one leader in the past 25 years and they do not have the open democratic process for leadership selection that prevails in other Parliamentary parties. Because NZ First is a split off National, their policy focus essentially follows the same social-conservative theme that is prevalent throughout the National Party, but at the more moderate end of the NP spectrum, causing NZF to be characterised as more into the centre of politics in NZ. The political centre has become much more important in NZ since the advent of MMP and nowadays all parties have to acknowledge it in order to gain and remain in power. However, the major parties in NZ are made up from dominant left and right ideological blocs and generally achieve electoral success by moderating their particular platforms by moderating their core ideology to capture more of the centre. Parties that focus more on the centre must necessarily be seen as combining policies from both the left and right wings of politics and have failed to capture more than a few percent of electoral support in NZ long term.

NZ First at its core, being a split from National, has a bedrock right wing policy approach and tends to cleave more to that side of the political spectrum. When they are inclined to come further left, it is usually by cherry picking key policy areas of from Labour or the Greens. One of those focuses for the past few terms has been in the NZ rail network largely driven by an ambitious Auckland-based member who won’t be named in this post. However NZ First is essentially having a buck both ways on transport development by playing both sides of the fence, campaigning on the same pro-roads platform as National whilst at the same time championing rail development. This leads to many contradictions, which are most visible in public transport in particular. It must be plainly obvious to the majority of public transport campaigners that PT is highly necessary in major urban environments as part of a wider platform of mitigating the adverse environmental impacts caused by unrestricted growth in private vehicle use and therefore, it is necessary at some point to put limits on vehicle usage. The NZ First approach to any form of rail based transport tries to pretend that it is possible to have unrestricted car growth and a viable public transport system, in order to capture votes from both camps. The problem with this is that the two camps are usually implacably opposed to each other (the old left/right political dynamic) and a party like NZF coming into the picture is generally seen to be focused mainly on short term political objectives and not on a long term viable approach to solving the bigger problems that need to be addressed in urban development in cities.

Auckland has been through a long series of processes over many years to attempt to determine future avenues of development of the public transport networks that will be needed over the longer term. There have been some monumental projects undertaken in the last couple of decades, among them are the DART project in West Auckland that doubled and upgraded the urban part of the North Auckland Line from Newmarket to Swanson, the Britomart underground rail terminal in the Auckland CBD, and the City Rail Loop that extends Britomart to allow through train running for greater capacity. Public transport is essential to the future of the city and it will continue to be handled by multiple modes, which at the moment include the Northern Busway and heavy rail. The biggest debate in the last five years has focused around creating several light rail corridors that will extend as far north as Kumeu and terminate at the airport in Mangere. NZ First has been implacably opposed to both Kumeu and the airport being served by light rail, as both areas are also close to existing heavy rail lines which they claim should be the focus of new PT services. This ignores that all the light rail corridors that have been proposed are completely new routes that open up rail access to additional areas of the city that are not currently so served and using the existing heavy rail corridors would not extend the reach of public transport to the same extent. The stage has been set therefore for a fractious and mostly unnecessary debate about the different merits of light vs heavy rail for public transport (the differences are comparitively minor in relation to passenger carriage) and is largely driven by NZ First’s representatives attempting to tap into the small and insular rail heritage community for votes.

The airport light rail development proposals can best be summed up as not actually being focussed particularly on the small number of passengers who would be likely to use it to meet flights. This market is so small that the services would not be able to pay their way if they were focused primarily on serving it. Hence the light rail proposal is for a line that serves urban population catchments around Mangere and for people that work at the airport, rather than flyers. The same impact could be achieved by extending existing heavy rail from Onehunga and is probably a better long term objective because it can serve the actual growth in airport traffic in the longer term when that eventually develops to become more viable, while in the shorter term it enables the servicing of the additional urban population catchments between Onehunga and the airport. However, NZ First is campaigning on a rail line from the airport via Puhinui that would not serve any additional urban population due to it running through the airport noise corridor, on the basis that it is claimed that passenger trains from Hamilton to the south and the greater Waikato could become viable. The problem with assuming Hamilton would be a significant catchment is that it is only about 120 km from there to the airport, which is quite driveable for a lot of people and well served by existing road shuttles that the rail would be hard pressed to compete against, especially on fares. The possibility of getting a lot of passengers from the south is really a very long term outcome that will be driven by massive population increase in that corridor over decades and again, in the short term, is simply a nonsense proposition.

The light rail debate for Auckland has become drawn out due to scope changes by the government that have obscured the important outcomes. The Government has failed to understand the background of the original light rail proposals and allowed itself to be sidetracked into supporting a proposed PPP for a very expensive airport focused metro line. This is as nonsensical as NZ First’s Puhinui heavy rail proposal. Neither of these achieves the development objectives that the original heavy rail (via Onehunga) and light rail plans were intended to achieve. If the Government proceeds with the airport metro line it will be an expensive white elephant around the necks of taxpayers and ratepayers for decades whilst funnelling fistfuls of their money into a Canadian pension fund that will profit handsomely. Incredibly, this has continued to be at the forefront of Labour’s blatant hijack of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project in its present term, and since Labour has now dropped the original ATAP light rail plans in favour of the metro white elephant, it will remain contentious should they win the election later this year. NZ First’s pitch for a heavy rail line from Puhinui to the airport is mostly about capturing votes from both sides of the political divide from being cheaper to construct than light rail and supposedly enabling fast train services to the airport from all around the Auckland and Waikato regions. Neither of these is relevant in the short tot medium term as the economics do not actually stack up. The best outcome really for Auckland is to build the extension of the Onehunga heavy rail to the airport and develop the light rail separately without reference to South Auckland – earlier proposals were to take a light rail line from the city to Mt Roskill without heading further south as ATAP proposes. NZ First taking their high road over stymying Labour’s airport metro project is ignoring the fact that their alternative is not better than various alternatives that have been on the table in recent times. The NZ First Party has employed a range of questionable tactics in its campaigns on the issue due to attempting to straddle both sides of the political fence and their attempts to divide and conquer the public transport landscape are not material to their lack of long term political viability because the key factors concerning this are deeply rooted in the Party’s history and culture and the important differences between it and other Parliamentary parties. Ultimately, whilst we believe there are serious and valid concerns that have been raised by NZ First over the government’s flagship light rail/metro policy platform, they are not in a position to claim any moral high ground in the debate because their alternative is not any more credible.

Submission on Christchurch Commuter Rail

This is our first post since we decided to close down our Facebook group “Greater Christchurch Public Transport” and syndicate these posts to the groups.io group “NZ Rail Maps and Christchurch Public Transport” instead.

The Greens have announced a policy proposal to get the government to fund the development of commuter trains for Christchurch. However, this is not new, as they had a similar policy at the previous election, and nothing resulted from it.

We are putting together a generic submission template because it has become fairly apparent that there is a lack of will from central government political parties to move the commuter rail proposals forward. Labour has effectively outsourced this to the Christchurch City Council, which to date has responded with another version of its longstanding opposition to commuter rail, and proposals for the money to instead be spent on projects focused around the Christchurch CBD and excluding the outer suburbs, let alone the satellite townships in Greater Christchurch outside the Christchurch City borders.

We know from history that the same issues have been prevalent in Wellington, where the Let’s Get Wellington Moving considerations resulted in a proposal for BRT to be implemented by Wellington City Council that was quietly dropped due to lack of political will for ratepayers to fund the proposals. This will always happen in a territorial council environment where their city limits are small enough that everyone can get around on a bus and rapid transport is only useful when going into satellite outposts, which for reasons of pork barrelling, the territorial politicians always frustrate.

Wellington would never have got its commuter train service if it had been left to Wellington City, Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt and Kapiti to agree on what service was to be provided. Neither would have Auckland back in the days of multiple territorial authorities. The governments in both eras (1938 Labour government in Wellington, and 1999 Labour government in Auckland) stepped in over the top of bickering local politicians and whipped them into line. In Auckland this resulted in legislation to bring inb the Auckland Regional Transport Authority that took over all public transport in the region. The result being the doubling of most of the suburban network and the electrification and new trains that they got subsequently). A few generations earlier in Wellington, they got their electrification out to Paekakariki and Upper Hutt and the EMUs which are now in their third generation.

And that is what this inept government needs to realise as they have given us very little to date in terms of public transport development. The main issue is that in this present pandemic environment, it is very difficult to campaign for new public transport services. So when we put the document together we will have to lobby for a staged development approach, for example to get infrastructure built before trains are eventually introduced as demand returns, which could take many years.

Anyway, this submission proposal will be progressed over the next week. Watch this space.

Greens Call For Commuter Rail Development

This week the Green Party has called for rail commuter development around the country as part of a post-Covid economic stimulus package for the country. As reported in this Stuff article, they suggest $9 billion should be invested over 10 years to build high speed commuter networks centered around Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. In our region, Christchurch-Rangiora is a particular focus, with the possibility of extending to Ashburton or Timaru to be considered as well.

A quick search on the Stuff website shows there have been many commuter rail proposals articulated over the past ten or more years. These have all been sidelined by Wellington until Labour put a proposal into their manifesto at the last election. There were similar campaigns from the Greens and NZ First as well, but no progress has been made on the issue for various reasons, the key one being that Labour has favoured one of its own local body politicians in Christchurch proposing a city-only solution instead of the Greater Christchurch regional option that heavy rail is most suited to. This flies in the face of the longstanding campaigns in the city for heavy rail as well as the views of the other two parties of Government.

We will be writing a submission over the next few days that will be copied to the Greens, Labour and NZ First as the parties that are supportive of commuter rail development in Greater Christchurch. It will be including material that we have previously published on this blog in support of Greater Christchurch commuter rail development, and will be asking some hard questions about the lack of progress on the 2018 proposals, as well as pushing for more action from the parties than we have got so far.

So watch this space as we will include the submission in another post on this site when it has been written and sent.

Examples of previous reporting on commuter rail:

Christchurch At The Transport Crossroads In 2020 [2]

Well this part 2 has taken a long time to appear, but these days we want to be more considered in blogging and spending the time to think things through properly rather than rushing out a lot of lower quality posts or ones that repeat stuff already made. Unfortunately the key problem that is affecting all transport projects around the country is a lack of commitment from the government, which is rapidly giving even its most ardent supporters the impression that they are largely a populist personality cult focused around the Prime Minister and have almost no ideological backbone. In the recent announcements all they have really done is fund projects that were either lobbied for by NZ First and included in the coalition agreement, or that were developed by the previous government.

That said, the main object of this part 2 is to continue discussing what are the key reasons we are not seeing progress in developing commuter rail in Christchurch, apart from the lack of government focus, which is a pretty big part of it. Simply put, territorial local authorities have a very weak corrupt political obeisance to the rich and powerful, whilst this is also seen at central government level it tends to be a lot more open there with more checks and balances. In fact we think it is probably a good rule of thumb that the smaller and more local a unit of government is, the more likely it is to be captured by personal interests of the people living in it and the less likely it is to care about being a part of a larger territory and the overall interests of that territory. This goes a long way to explaining why local government authorities frequently fails to take into consideration a big picture of the role they have to play in a larger urban region. They seek to maintain their own small scale political interests and ignore everything else.

In the case of Christchurch City, much of the current debate about the nature of the city focusing on the idea that the central city (the Four Avenues as it is called) is more important than anywhere else within the territorial limits of the whole city and that this area should get more of the resources especially ratepayer funding than the outer suburbs. At the time of writing this there has been much opinion commentary in “The Press” newspaper by a well known radio host and National Party member on a supposed revolt around the Council table by five councillors who are campaigning for rates spending to be reduced. The problem for the said commentator is that if we dig deeper into what is being said, it leads to a default assertion that there are in fact some projects that are not libraries or art galleries or swimming pools that should actually get lots of money from the council and these are straight commercial projects within the central city area, or large pieces of infrastructure that create business opportunities for hotel owners and the like. The key issue underlying this is that there are some wealthy developers and landowners in the central city who are sitting on expensive high value property and that the rest of the city is “morally” obliged to agree to fund, through their rates payments, what is a property owners’ cartel that keeps land prices much higher there than anywhere else in the city.

What flows out from this is that the current Mayor that we have, as with most of our mayors, being based in the central city, is captured by these interests and has focused on pushing the central-is-better viewpoint in a big way. When we see that in 2014 Ecan did this rail study which showed that rail should have been developed, and then the next year the Mayor demands the right to meddle in public transport for the entire region through forming the Joint Public Transport Committee. Then the next stage is to develop a new public transport plan that focuses mainly on Christchurch and from the Mayor’s perspective, on the Christchurch central city area with a whole lot of new routes that go through the CBD. The ideas that anyone can live in other parts of the region (Selwyn / Waimakariri) and travel to an outer suburb or that these areas can offer facilities to people living there or in outer suburbs that compete with what is in the central city, are obviously a great threat to the financial and political hegemony of the small group of super wealthy elite who control the centre of Christchurch.

At the moment the JPTC is said to have rejected rail as a possible solution for Christchurch – this has been stated by other commentators such as Talking Transport but we haven’t been able to find out as yet exactly where this was explicitly stated. However the JPTC has a funding study at work with NZTA to get some proposals investigated – as far as we know, these are for ideas like bus rapid transit or light rail, not for heavy rail. We are intending to get stuck into a lot of process behind the current direction being taken by the Joint Public Transport Committee and the plans and consultations and other processes they have been working with. However this depends a great deal on what can be achieved locally working with other transport activists in Greater Christchurch. As we signalled in the first post for this year the bigger direction we hope to achieve this year is to see greater collaboration with other groups or persons to get progress. Can’t give any guarantees of how that might play out during the year so that question will be left open for the present but we hope that saying “watch this space” will prove to be fruitful.

Christchurch At The Transport Crossroads In 2020 [1]

Whilst we may not be planning to blog as much this year, there are still things that need to be said from time to time. We have spent a few weeks thinking about this post, and just feel it is important to write it. It is partially a different way of writing about some of the issues we were going to put into a different planned article series in late December (which has been dropped due to our change in focus for this year).

Christchurch is a really badly planned city for public transport, and nothing much is going to change as long as the Government passes the buck on it. Whilst Labour did make an election promise for $100 million to establish a commuter service from Rolleston, like other Labour public transport initiatives around the country, this has fallen flat due to general political incompetence. Largely, this is due to the slavish political obeisance of the Minister of Transport to Christchurch City Council politicians. The way the power structures work in the City, these politicians have absolutely nothing to gain from any type of transport system that is not road-based. The Minister has spent far too much time listening to the lobbying of the Christchurch Mayor and not enough on actually understanding all of the issues at stake and the benefits that come from designing a public transport system that works across the whole Greater Christchurch area. It comes about because even though both central and local governance in Christchurch City is nominally Labour affiliated, the city council politicians only follow this in word and not in deed. The ideological focus of the “People’s Choice” political bandwagon in local Christchurch governance is, in practice, nearly indistinguishable from Independent Citizens or other National-affiliated right wing groupings.

So the only actual action on public transport reform we have seen from central government is to pass a law allowing the transfer of management of public transport systems between regional and territorial councils. This issue is largely irrelevant to the way these systems operate, and is unlikely to produce any real improvement in the way public transport systems are operated in Greater Christchurch at present. In fact, it is likely to work against improved systems of public transport being introduced in future, and we believe in fact this is a political calculation by the powers that be. We also note that the Mayor of Christchurch has been one of the chief cheerleaders for this legislative initiative, but we wouldn’t be prepared to put money on her being able to serve her full term at present due to questions being asked about her electoral finance returns at the last two elections. To put it another way, we have to ask what pressing issue the Mayor is trying to solve by campaigning to take over the operation of our bus services. We think it is becoming increasingly clear that it is essentially a political power game being played by Christchurch City against the regional council and territorial authorities further out, and is actually against the public interest.

So what are the political calculations involved? Firstly, let us conclude this first instalment of this two-part article by looking at how a local politician’s mind works when their territory is part of a larger urban area that is governed by multiple councils. This fact in places like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch has been addressed to a large extent by the local government reforms of 1989, which created regional councils to govern public transport systems over multi-territory metropolitan areas. In Auckland, of course, there has since been the further amalgamation of local areas to form the Auckland Council. Prior to that, in the early 2000s the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) was created to separate public transport management from the other roles of Auckland Regional Council (ARC). Auckland Transport is the successor of ARTA but with increased powers and responsibilities, for example management of Auckland roads. In Wellington, some smaller councils were amalgamated into the larger territories of Kapiti, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt, Porirua and Wellington City, but there is no present political impetus for a “Wellington Council” type of amalgamation. Wellington, however, did have bus services operated by Wellington City Transport (WCT) which was controlled by Wellington City Council. Christchurch, since the inception of public transport well over 100 years ago, has always had these services regionally managed; CCC has never been in control of them. This function was originally performed by the Christchurch Transport Board (CTB) (Christchurch Tramway Board in earlier years) and their function was handed over to Ecan (Canterbury Regional Council) in 1989.

Prior to the various local government reforms that have occurred, public transport was in some areas regionally managed from an early stage (Christchurch was the first area out of the three mentioned above to have this type of organisation) and in Auckland this system was introduced in the 1960s. In both Auckland and Wellington, the all important commuter passenger services were always managed in a regional fashion, firstly through the district offices of NZ Railways and latterly through the respective regional councils. This however has never been popular with the mayors of the largest territories. In such a politician’s small mind, they are seeking to maximise their political power by concentrating as much of the population of the larger metropolitan area as possible within their territory. They also want to make it more difficult for people to live outside their territory and commute to work within it. Therefore it is in a local politician’s interest to have control over all of the transport systems in their area. A regional transport system such as commuter trains that makes it easy for people to live north and south of Christchurch and commute quickly and rapidly into the city to work has long been despised by Christchurch mayors because these residents are not paying rates into the City coffers. These simple political facts go a long way to explaining part of the reason why Christchurch City Council does not have any interest in furthering the development of commuter rail services in the region. We will look into another key part of that reason in our second article.

Questionable Commitment in Greater Christchurch to Bus Passenger Service

As of now there is a process underway with Metro Christchurch / Ecan concerning their procedure for dealing with passenger complaints about the Greater Christchurch public transport services administered by them. This issue alleges that one of the bus operators failed to respond to customer complaints over an extended period of time and that Metro Christchurch / Ecan has not taken meaningful steps to enforce their stated contractural obligation for bus operators to respond to customer complaints in a timely way.

We understand that with the concern expressed about lack of enforcement by Metro Christchurch, the matter is likely to be escalated to Ecan at a more senior level, or to the Councillors of the Regional Council, or one of their committees (JPTC or RTC as appropriate). We have some knowledge of the issues but it would be inappropriate to comment further whilst this matter is still going through the customer complaints process with Metro / Ecan.

Post-local-election thoughts [2]

So a look this time at some of the Ecan campaigns, the issues they ran into and so on. First one was Aaron Campbell’s campaign in Christchurch West for Ecan. It almost looked like he might have been worth voting for if I had lived there, however I since discovered that he was Dalziel’s campaign manager, something he certainly kept quiet during the elections. He missed out on being elected. Rik Tindall failed to fire in Christchurch South / Banks Peninsula ward, coming in last place, a long way down from his 2016 campaign where he came in at fifth place in what was then the four-seat constituency for the whole of Christchurch. My advice to Rik would be to quit politics altogether, given he seems to have large differences with the major political groupings in Christchurch. Axel Wilke made quite a good effort in Christchurch Central but came in 5th place and so was not elected. In my opinion this is attributable to the fact that his campaign crossed over from regional to local issues a number of times in advocating transport solutions for the city, as well as an intensive housing development proposal in Middleton. He reportedly earned ire and de-endorsement from Lianne Dalziel when he campaigned on opposing the takeover of public transport by the city, something that should perhaps have been kept under wraps during the campaign given how much support there is from Labour supporters for this course of action.  However it is quite good that Paul McMahon, James Dann and a number of other Peoples Choice Ecan candidates missed out, but as Phil Clearwater was the leading candidate he is very likely to be the next chairman and to be keen to continue greasing the wheels for a City takeover.

Tane Apanui is the key pro-rail campaigner to win election to Ecan, which he did on a populist platform by drawing support from a range of political groupings and campaigning on a typical NZ First/PTUA plank of adding rail to existing transport networks, rather than addressing the need for car use to be reduced. We find his stance difficult to reconcile with an admittance that road construction materials are environmentally unustainable. Likewise, campaigns for rail have to be credible. A passenger rail service from Waipara or Amberley into Christchurch is not credible because these areas are so distant – Waipara is 63 km from the city and Amberley is 52 km, compared to Rangiora at 30 km. The populations of Amberley and Waipara are pretty small, unlikely to be able to support a train service. Likewise, the idea that one day trains will run to Christchurch Airport or that the powers that be will go for a really cheap train service are irrelevant. They are interesting ideas, but given the scepticism in the professional rail community over any type of commuter rail service, they won’t gain much ground. Much better to gain a consensus on a starting point such as a Christchurch to Rangiora service, as even that will require central government assistance to establish. Ecan cannot get any services off the ground on its own because they do not receive the funding to do so, and the fact that campaigns so far have focused on blaming Ecan and other local authorities, have been quite misplaced. However these types of campaigns have been very popular with Peoples Choice who have used this as a lever against Ecan to argue they should be in control of public transport. For these various reasons plus the involvement of PTUA in Auckland with their small support base, lack of success in their own campaigning,  and being widely disliked outside the rail community, we do not expect to see any real progress with this campaign, especially if the City Council takes over public transport.

The impact of CCC taking over the public transport is likely to be very negative for rail as Council will have additional levers with which to oppose the establishment of rail services, which it would have no control over. These finer points have been completely lost on the politicians in Wellington with their obesiance to local government. However there is a proposal in place at the moment from Government to allow for urban intensification along major corridors such as transport and CCC has submitted in opposition, claiming there is no housing shortage and that other priorities are more important, specifically rebuilding the CBD. It is apparent that the attempts by CCC to have the CBD dominate, which is well known to be a chief cause of the Mayor and certain Councillors who represent big business interests and wealthy landowners in the City, are resented in other parts of Christchurch, and this position for a Labour mayor contrasts quite noticeably with her predecessor who seems to have been the one who let a lot of the CBD be devolved into the suburbs. The submission from CCC is really business as usual in that it represents property owners’ interests above those of the common people. If they claim there is no need for additional housing then it heads off the possibility of the government moving to build affordable housing in the city which would impact property values. Likewise intensification is opposed on the basis of “loss of amenity”. As we have stated elsewhere we supported controlled intensification along transport corridors which we believe will create affordable housing developments that are needed for people. But Middleton may not be a good starting point. The Main North Line remains the most important corridor to focus on as it is already heavily residential and there is room to develop further north between Rangiora and Kaiapoi. So these Government proposals could aid the development of a rail service but as they are busy kissing local government’s butt most of the time it is an open question whether anything will actually happen and as we have said elsewhere, the Government has focused on greasing the wheels for territorial councils that Labour controls to be able to take over public transport, rather than actually making an effort to fix problems with additional funding.

Christchurch Transport Blog will probably wind down a bit in the coming year. We have worked with Chat Club to contribute to some of the work they have been doing. Essentially we do not expect the government to make any serious effort to promote meaningful commuter rail development in Christchurch City unless they are prepared to push in and intensify along the rail corridors, but they have gone so slowly so far (and so ineptly in government overall) that they are not likely to get anything in place before they inevitably lose an election. We do not of course know if they will repeat their promise for the next election but they have a serious credibility problem in any case. As such there is little to be achieved by further campaigning and with the assumption CCC will take over the bus services these will be swallowed up in to the rest of the Council and there will be no real improvement in them as Council does not actually listen to most of the people who actually use the services even now, as has been amply proved over the past decades.

Post-local-election thoughts [1]

So here is the first part of our take on the local government elections, Christchurch being the main focus for this first part. It was pleasing to see Justin Lester tipped out in Wellington because he campaigned on taking control of public transport there. However that is only a small consolation because the Government has bent over backwards to make it much easier for public transport around the country to be seized off regional councils by territorial councils. This is actively being sought in both Christchurch and Dunedin. It is all smoke and mirrors because the main obstacle to improving public transport, which the mayors of both cities have been lobbying on for decades, is the amount of subsidies that either local or central government are able to put into the operation of routes. The current level of funding requires that fares make up at least 50% of the running costs of bus services and has not been changed in 10 years, meaning the Labour Government has not addressed this issue in almost 3 years in office.

The fact is that Lianne Dalziel the Mayor of Christchurch who is a master at political scheming and manipulation, a very formidable political campaigner who was seriously underestimated by the unsuccessful challenger Daryll Park, almost as soon as she was elected into the job the first time, lobbied Ecan for a Joint Public Transport Committee and has spent the past two terms wearing down the opposition from Ecan councillors by haranging them at great length about essentially how useless they are at running public transport and how it should be taken over by the city council. The next step was a joint approach last term with Steve Lowndes, Ecan chairman and a fellow Labour member, to the Government, claiming that a Bill amending the Local Government Act was intended to facilitate the transfer of services between councils. The Bill in question that National introduced was nothing of the kind; it envisaged transport being moved into multi-agency CCOs which may have been intended to have a similar scope as Auckland Transport has in Auckland. Since Labour took over the Bill they have pushed through major amendments including gutting all of the CCO provisions and adding the actual transfer functions with amendments into the Land Transport Management Act and related legislation that was never in the original Bill. The result is to make it much easier for these services to be transferred. This amounts to about all that the Labour government has done for public transport during its first term of office and apparently this is the most important priority for them – that their role is to be an enabler for their members who are local government politicians first and foremost. This would have to be a very corrupt policy from central government if that proves to be the case.

The latest claims from Dalziel claim a fully integrated public transport system across Christchurch, Waimakariri and Selwyn will result, and she went further during the election campaign by saying CCC should actually be running all of the services itself, that is, they should own all of the buses and employ all the drivers, cutting out the use of bus companies that are presently contracted to run the services. This has been the end goal for CCC ever since they bought Red Bus off the Christchurch Transport Board back in the 1990s, but CCC has never administered or operated public transport services in Christchurch at any previous time because we have always had regionalised services due to them crossing territorial boundaries. That will not change and makes regionalising important. Also it is very unclear what a “fully integrated public transport” system actually is. At the present time, regional and territorial council staff already work closely together to deliver public transport services in the city, making such claims essentially meaningless.

The problem is that for a political schemer like Dalziel, making it easy for people to live outside the City boundaries, by having public transport services go into Selwyn and Waimakariri and give people in those regions an easy way of getting into the CBD, is contrary to her political interests as the City’s mayor. There has been a similar negative reaction to the development of the Christchurch Northern Corridor in enabling people to drive easily to Christchurch from residential communities further north, and by implication in the south. There is already enough debate in the City about the merits of of the Mayor’s push for the central business district to be the most dominant part of Christchurch, without bringing in the possibility that people living outside the city entirely could have as easy a level of access to the CBD as its own residents, without paying any rates. This is one key reason why the Joint Public Transport Committee has been dominated by the Mayor’s campaign for control of public transport, and why it has failed to consider heavy rail as a possible option for public transport in the city. However, equally concerning has been the Government’s attitude to the development of rail commuter services in the City, in which despite an election campaign promise of up to $100 million in funding, it was handed over entirely to local bodies to make the case for the service to be developed. Apart from the fact that the chosen Rolleston rail corridor is very hard to intensify, CCC for the reasons outlined above is the not the slightest bit in favour of a rail passenger service going outside its boundaries.

The agenda for public transport development for the past three years since a Labour Government was elected has gone entirely into political ideology over enabling local government politicians with greater control over services that run in their areas and leaving them to it. Mike Williams, the former president of the Labour Party, has made it clear he supports the call by Phil Goff, a former Labour Party leader and current mayor of Auckland, for reform of the structure of the Auckland Transport CCO. Giving greater power over the CCO to the elected politicians of Auckland Council is almost certain to result in its public transport development programme being severely curtailed in years to come, as road transport is the dominant preference of ratepayers in practically every city in New Zealand. Wellington will then simply say they are facilitating more democratic control by local politicians, when in reality local governance is so weak and corrupt that it disenfranchises a significant chunk of its electors. Williams also claims that the Auckland structures are the reason for the low electoral turnout in the City despite this being a nationwide trend. The Government has further cemented the view that they are entirely out of touch with reality by saying that electronic voting will be the saviour.

Well having looked at where Christchurch City will go in relation to public transport, we’ll have a look at other considerations in the second part of this series.

Local Government Amendment Bill pushing another political agenda

A Bill called the Local Government Amendment Bill No.2 has just been reported back from a select committee to Parliament. This Bill is of significance because it proposes to make it easier for local authorities to reorganise themselves by attacking each other and taking over services that the other provides.

Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of local government structure as it now appears. We have territorial councils that run a city or town and we have regional councils that govern entire regions and have regional responsibilities assigned to them. Before 1989 the regional councils did not exist, but there were a range of regional governance arrangements in place; for example there was Auckland Regional Authority, and closer to home there was Canterbury United Council. When local government was majorly reorganised nationwide the regionalisation arrangements became the norm across all areas, so that ARA became Auckland Regional Council, whilst CUC was essentially superseded by the Canterbury Regional Council. Many territorial councils were amalgamated together into larger bodies. This was done in a very piecemeal way rather than following common sense in a lot of cases, and this resulted in some unitary councils in places like Gisborne and Nelson-Malrborough for no good reason, and in some areas very small territorial councils like South Wairarapa District Council (total population 10,000), Kaikoura District Council (total population 3830), and three councils for the West Coast with an average around 10,000 in each of their districts.

So other words what is the point of having such small territorial councils and the reason is purely political. And what is the point of having unitary authorities and again it is political. When we see that there are clear benefits in the way regional councils and territorial councils are organised with clear responsibilities then the fact there are unitary authorities in some areas means that the regional and territorial functions are combined which creates a clear conflict of interest. This results in the regional function being minimised in most cases in those areas. To be able to look at the issue in this way we have to be able to understand that territorial forms of government are relatively weak and therefore prone to corruption and self interest. This weakness both comes from and contributes to a low standard of candidates for territorial council offices. Local governance is weak and corrupt because the wards that elect councillors are small and are therefore dominated by very local issues. The most local interest that any voter can have revolves around the house they live in. From there things scale up into their neighbourhood and its character. For political blocs to take control of a council they have to campaign across all the wards regardless of their character and therefore in most cases have to campaign on populist parochial platforms that will make the areas they represent more desirable, which usually involves spending lots of ratepayers’ funds. These platforms are in turn captured by interest groups that have the most time and money to spend on lobbying, generally the more prosperous areas in a city or town.

Both major political blocs recognise there are objectives that they can achieve through local government. National generally favours keeping councils locally focused taking as many responsibilities from them as possible or placing them under heavy government regulation. Examples: changing the Resource Management Act multiple times to push through development without public consultation,; mandating interference from NZTA in public transport tendering; forcing councils to sell their shareholdings in electricity retailing and public transport operations; mandating council corporatisation of commercial holdings, etc. National also supports councils becoming unitary so that a layer of bureaucracy is eliminated. Labour on the other hand supports councils that are involved in more things with more deveolved powers from central government, less regulation, more public consultation powers, more assets owned by central government etc. The problem is that both of these differing objectives fail to make local government more equitable. The populist character of local government campaigning and representation is not being addressed. This means that less populist causes such as core council functions and better services in areas such as water and public transport are not well served by local government.

National brought this Bill together to provide for new CCOs that would be owned by multiple Councils and organise infrastructure and services such as water and transport services into such organisations. Reorganisations would have to be under the supervision of an increased Local Government Commission with more members and powers than before. Labour has gutted key sections of the Bill, most notably the additional powers and duties assigned to the Local Government Commission and the sections changing the functions of CCOs. probably because the National Party model of a CCO would look more like the ones in Auckland, which follow a more corporate model of organisation that has less direct accountability to elected governance. Since the effect of National’s proposals was to regionalise local government more and the Labour proposals are to territorialise it more, the outcomes of changing this will be more negative for functions that are currently regionalised in local governance. This has come about because the Labour mayors of large cities which do not control functions such as public transport have been lobbying for decades to take over control of these functions regardless of the merit of any such proposals, which in most cases is non existent.

The problem with this Bill that Labour is pushing through (to serve their own political interests) is that the local government weakness is going to become more empowered by this law. A territorial council can instigate a reorganisation proposal out of naked self interest, usually from a political bloc who will claim they can do something better than another group of politicians. An example in Christchurch is the campaign by CCC to take over running local bus services from Ecan. There is no substantive basis for this claim except for naked self interest and political greed from CCC politicians, namely the Labour-Peoples Choice bloc. The much wider agenda is making it easier for territorial councils to seize power from their regional counterparts in every area possible. This means that CCC could also campaign to take over the responsibility for air quality, another area where they have proven particularly ineffective in the past to regulate due to a well funded vocal lobby of heating appliance and car owners who believe they have a right to pollute. Another example could be water quality. CCC is currently one of the biggest freshwater polluters in the city due to overflows from the wastewater system that it steadfastly refuses to fund the upgrade of. The reasons for pushing these measures through are not to improve services to ratepayers, but to advantage political blocs like Labour.

Once the Bill is passed we can expect to see the political blocs in various cities exploiting the very weak reorganisational mechanisms to push through various takeovers and the Government will stand by and do nothing as it is a political advantage to them to have territorial authorities that have more fingers in pies than ever. In public transport, because the existing provision of PT functions by CCC is already very weak, an improvement is unlikely.

Car-centric carriageway clogging culture continues in Christchurch [5]: Political realities

Right now we have a Labour government in Wellington, and we have Ecan headed by a Labour member (Steve Lowndes) and we have the Christchurch City Council headed by a Labour member (Lianne Dalziel).  And this is like political heaven for the Labour party, and as long as it continues we will never actually see any progress in commuter rail in the city. That is because the main focus for Labour in local government is not serving you and me, and standing for anything like they do in central government. It is about getting elected and being in office and having as much power as possible. Local government and other local institutions are what Labour uses to support their national organisation, and train and groom people for national office. So the focus is on getting more political power.

In the transport sphere, we saw that when Ecan was ruled by commissioners and Sir Bob Parker was the Mayor, their focus was quite different in Christchurch PT. They were successful in getting the Riccarton Metro Suburban Interchange built. When the Council staff stalled and welshed and tried to get out of building it, Bazley called them liars and Bob Parker actually got up and apologised, and the interchange got built. What most people missed is that when Lianne was the MP for Christchurch East, she promised to lobby for a suburban interchange to be built in New Brighton. That’s gone very quiet since she became Mayor. We’ve heard no more about any suburban interchanges from her Council in two terms; they are now touting bigger bus stops and calling them “suburban interchanges” despite the earlier plans for proper interchanges that Council staff were putting into annual plans for years in the 2000s.

Instead Labour in the Council has focused on a time wasting exercise of seeking to take over the city’s public transport network. It’s always a goal when there is a Labour controlled council to achieve what they’ve wanted for decades. Once upon a time, Denis O’Rourke was an elected Labour member on the council. Unfortunately he is another politician well past their use by date, who is the chairman of Central Plains Water Trust, that great CCC Labour initiative (started by Garry Moore) to make money off an irrigation scheme that will intensify farming and increase freshwater pollution. O’Rouke was first appointed to CPWT way back in 2000. He lost his council set in 2004, and was unable to gain any office in 2007 Ecan elections, or 2010 elections for CCC and CDHB. He then stood for NZ First on the party list at rank 7 and was elected in 2011 and 2014, but with a drop in rank for 2017 he did not return to Parliament. O’Rourke as a Labour councillor made incessant attacks upon the regional council, claiming they should be abolished. It was obvious this included taking over public transport, but there was no progress towards this achieved during his time on the Council.

It is clear from around the country that Labour are empire builders at local government level and are looking for power and influence over everything else so we should be extremely wary of a situation where they are in control of both central and local government and are looking to feather their nest. For this reason we believe the best way we could see public transport advanced in Christchurch, including commuter rail, is if the Council swings to the right at the present elections. Another example of this is a Labour councillor who is currently being investigated (his name is all over the media at the moment) who has said he opposes Government moves to mandate intensified development in parts of our cities. It is only with that type of development and proper planning focused along transport corridors, such as rail lines, that we will see a development of the city of Christchurch that is properly designed for mass rapid public transit. Just the fact that the government being Labour giving a nod and a wink to its members who have power in the City Council and Regional Council is a recipe for stagnation, not for good policy action that will move the City forward.

Hence, we have to wait for the local elections to see which way things will go in the development of public transport in Christchurch.