Grant Robertson is relishing getting his hands around the all-encompassing portfolio of infrastructure, adding it to his prime role as Minister of Finance.
It is critical to the success of the second term of the Ardern Administration that the Government makes quick pace on the infrastructure agenda.
It has to put the failure (for example) to deliver on KiwiBuild promises behind it, make good on project timelines and put a reputation for being "bad on execution" behind it.
Robertson is critical to that.
At his Beehive office, the Infrastructure Minister told the Herald that the New Zealand Upgrade programme was a top priority. "It is really hard to remember but it was only at the end of January this year that we grabbed a set of projects and said we want to move this forward.
"But that piece of work is a top priority for me to actually make sure it is rolling out properly."
The $12 billion NZ Upgrade Programme, announced on January 29, will result in rail, roads, schools and hospitals being built and upgraded across the country.
"Clearly Covid-19 has intervened in our ability to get them rolling as fast as we could," says Robertson. "But good work has been done and it does actually need those big horizontal construction projects to move forward in coming years.
"There is actually a lot of work there which is good."
It must have been seriously frustrating for Robertson (at times) during the last parliamentary term with former New Zealand First MP Shane Jones holding the important infrastructure portfolio.
The pair had a good working relationship.
But Jones was famously flammable when it came to dealing with those in the business sector who he felt were standing in the way of progress.
Example One: NZ First's proposal to shift the Ports of Auckland to Whangarei which was hived off to a working group headed by Northland businessman Wayne Brown. The Upper North Island Supply chain project recommended the move.
But Mayor of Auckland Phil Goff did not take kindly to being presented with a fait accompli. Port officials were also singled out.
The Ministry of Transport says that finding a solution for the upper North Island supply chain strategy has issues and implications. Officials have deferred providing any further policy analysis until 2021.
Example Two: Jones publicly poured cold water on the proposed light rail project for Auckland which had been pledged by Labour at the 2017 election.
He used a speech to an Infrastructure Commission conference in late February to say cost increases in the City Rail Link "makes me very, very cautious about light rail".
Robertson has made the point that Jones was referring to expected costs which lay with the NZ Super Fund — not directly with the Crown. But because the prior Coalition partners could not agree on a preferred light rail option that also has been kicked into 2021.
He is diplomatic when responding to the Herald's tease that it must be so much simpler operating in what is to all intents and purposes a First Past the Post (FPP) environment.
A key focus for Robertson is a bunch of Covid-19 recovery programme projects which were chosen by an Infrastructure Reference Group (IRG) with leadership from Crown Infrastructure Partners chair Mark Binns.
These "shovel-ready" projects were designed to provide some fiscal stimulus to the NZ economy in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdowns and importantly, more jobs.
"We are very fortunate in the way that Crown Infrastructure Projects have done their job there," says Robertson. "They're very competent — there's giant spread sheets spread out and lying around with quarterly updates — so it's good.
"It's really good. Just making sure that that actually plays out and does what we said it would."
"Bear in mind with IRG, that shovel-readiness is in the eye of the beholder. We set ourselves a timeline where every project has to have a start date.
"I have the joy of looking out the Beehive window at the Cathedral which is one of the projects.
"You can see the white around it — that's an IRG project. So, it's happening."
In Robertson's view, the vertical construction sector probably has more than they can cope with right at the moment.
But with horizontal infrastructure the timeframes are a lot longer — "they are talking what is happening in 18 months because they have got workforces to deploy."
Here's his take on some key issues:
Robertson had yet to meet with new Transport Minister Michael Wood when the Herald interviewed him last Friday.
Light rail is definitely on the Government's work programme, he assures the Herald. "There are lots of reasons why we didn't (last term) but look to the future here. We have laid the platform for this."
Herald: So, you would want to make progress on it this parliamentary term? Robertson: Absolutely.
Crown Infrastructure Partners, under its Act, can identify where opportunities are.
It is designed to be able to create a different way of both providing the financing and creating revenue streams that are needed to support that.
Robertson cites the Milldale housing project which CIP started as a good example.
"If we are going to crack the housing challenge in NZ we have to be better at this way of doing this kind of development," he says.
"The whole point of this is to lift this off the balance sheet of central government and local government and put it into those special purpose vehicles and drive it forward."
Robertson is in close contact with Environment Minister David Parker on the RMA Reforms to ensure they facilitate infrastructure the Government wants to progress.
A key factor is to make sure that critical interests are considered. "Last term, we did National Policy Statements on urban development and on elite soils together," says Robertson. "They went through Cabinet together and it was really good. You can think about how a city is growing okay. But also ensure Pukekohe still does potatoes.
"We want to protect wetlands; we want to protect elite soils, but we also want urban development."
Getting apprentices into building
There's been a big boost to apprenticeship training, with 6500 new apprentices this year compared to around 2000 in the prior year.
Robertson concedes getting infrastructure specialists into NZ is a constant challenge. A BusinessNZ group is working with Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi on that.
The Prime Minister has said about 10 per cent of MIQ positions at the border will be reserved for economically significant workers.
PPPs — in favour?
Robertson is open to private public partnership — particularly in transport. But some have thrown up big challenges like Transmission Gully.
He wants to see the NZSF, ACC and institutional investors play a role in funding large scale investments.