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Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Govt's political fears ought to be tested

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A good chunk of change has been spent on Auckland transport projects since National took power including the Victoria Park tunnel and Newmarket Viaduct. Photo / Martin Sykes
A good chunk of change has been spent on Auckland transport projects since National took power including the Victoria Park tunnel and Newmarket Viaduct. Photo / Martin Sykes

RadioLIVE has dubbed Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee the Minister of No.

It is a label that might just stick after his frank response to Auckland Mayor Len Brown's latest foray into transport funding.

Brownlee was quick to rule out some of the options that the Consensus Building Group has come up with to plug an estimated $12 billion funding gap to finance plans to ensure Auckland's transport system keeps pace with the city's growth over the next 30 years.

The group recommended the gap be funded through higher rates and fuel taxes for all Aucklanders, or through road user charges gathered on off-ramps of existing motorways, not just on new roads.

But it was a quick "No" from the Beehive to regional fuel taxes and "No" again to tolls on existing roads.

The Transport Minister is correct to say existing roads have already been paid for from a combination of road user charges and excise taxes. He believes Aucklanders will not want to pay twice.

National also ruled out regional fuel taxes when it came into power in 2008.

But it's the underlying politics that are telling.

"Who'd be bold enough going into an election cycle promising more taxes for Auckland," he mused to radio host Sean Plunket yesterday.

"I don't know anyone who would say, 'tax us more, charge us more and we are going to vote you in to do it'."

Brownlee's tacit admission that it is fears of a voter backlash which are hindering National from flirting with these two options should be tested.

National has after all gone ahead with its partial privatisation programme - which was not universally popular - and sold 49 per cent of Mighty River Power in May with an IPO for Meridian Energy planned for later this year.

This is not the characteristic of a government devoid of political gonads.

It made the case for why partial privatisation should go ahead and implemented the policy.

It is also true that a good chunk of change has been spent on Auckland transport projects since National took power - the Victoria Park tunnel, Newmarket Viaduct, SH16 and Waterview project, in particular.

These projects provided valuable economic stimulus to Auckland after the New Zealand economy was knee-capped by the global financial crisis and kept construction companies viable.

It would be better for the Government if it did publicly engage with Auckland on this issue.

A great deal of work by the Auckland Council-commissioned group has gone into forging a consensus on options to find an extra $400 million each year to meet the funding gap.

That views are changing in Auckland is obvious from the Herald's DigiPoll and also the informal snapshots on nzherald.co.nz, where more than 40 per cent of respondents had ticked tolls as their preferred option when I took a glance yesterday.

There is more preparedness to accept an element of user pays as the new transport norm - including on roads. And why wouldn't this be so, given that our highly mobile population is confronted with exactly that when they skip across the Tasman to Australia, or travel to Asia or elsewhere.

It's pertinent to note that Brown also took a considered and staged approach to provoking debate on the funding options.

The Auckland business community - which stumped up a great deal of Brown's 2010 mayoral campaign war chest - wants to see progress. While some initially found Brown's waiata singing style too much to stomach, they have swung round to back two of his flagship projects (the City Rail Link and another harbour crossing).

The Government also swung round - after a period of contemplation (not to be confused with contempt) - and pledged to pony up some funding after business lobbies had a word in Wellington.

Business lobbies are now saying more modelling work needs to be done on the options that the Consensus Building Group has put forward. It is obvious that the two separate options have an element of pick and mix to them. In-depth modelling will pinpoint a future pathway with more accuracy.

Brownlee is saying the Government should not be driven down a line it's not prepared to go down. And that a lot of things will change before Auckland is hit with the first demands for more cash.

The Government is also looking at how it might bring forward funding to stay ahead of the demand curve.

If Brown's Consensus Building Group initiative succeeds in stampeding central government to put its hands in its pockets sooner, he will be able to claim a victory.

Brownlee should not become a Minister of Yes, but it's surely in the best interests of Auckland and business that the Government takes a more conciliatory approach.

- NZ Herald

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