Amid the wreckage of her Government's failed policy agenda, one proposal remains alive to justify Jacinda Ardern being recognised as a transformational leader 100 years hence. More immediately, it could tie NZ First to Labour and the Greens for at least a decade. It also threatens to split National from many of its Auckland and Northland supporters and even put it on the wrong side of John Key.
The issue is port reform. Thursday's second interim report of the Government's Upper North Island Port Strategy again recommends the managed closure of the used-car and container-port operations in Auckland's CBD; the development of NorthPort at Marsden Point as a modern, world-class, deep-water alternative; and the continued expansion of the Port of Tauranga as planned.
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The project would include the development of NorthPort's landside infrastructure for new warehousing, national distribution centres and support industries; a rejuvenated North Auckland rail line with a spur to Northport; and an inland freight hub in northwest Auckland to complement Metroport in the south.
Cruise-ship operations, which last year saw 108 vessels visit Auckland carrying 272,000 tourists, would remain in the Auckland CBD.
According to Ernst & Young (EY), the project comes with a benefit:cost ratio of 2:1. Compared with doing nothing, the net benefits would exceed $1.6 billion, around $200 million going to Northland.
For its part, Auckland would avoid average vehicle speeds during the morning peak dropping to 5km/h, equivalent to a walking pace, with one container truck expected to enter or exit the CBD port every 16 seconds by 2049.
Ratepayers would avoid the $1b extra that needs to be invested to keep Auckland's used-car and container operations viable, and the implicit $5b to $6b subsidy associated with it continuing to operate on perhaps the country's most valuable land.
Over a quarter of a million square metres would become available for development into high-value apartments, workplaces and other amenities, generating more rates for Auckland Council than the annual dividends the port pays — usually around $50m but just a projected $8.7m in 2020 and $9.4m in 2021.
There would be 200,000 square metres of new public space, restoring Aucklanders' access to the harbour.
A sensible decision, one way or another, could finally be made about a waterfront stadium and the future of Eden Park, Mt Smart, Western Springs and North Harbour Stadium.
No jobs would be lost in Auckland immediately, with progressive closure allowing normal retirement and attrition to do the job, but an estimated 2000 new jobs would be created in Northland.
The politics are also clear. According to a Colmar-Brunton study conducted for the port project, presumably to test Ports of Auckland's rapidly expiring social licence, 54 per cent of Aucklanders think the proposal would be good for the city and only 14 per cent think it would be bad. It would obviously be overwhelmingly positive for Northland and Tauranga.
Apart from the rigour with which EY has analysed the proposal, nothing much is new about it.
At one time or another, everyone from Key and Ardern, to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and local National MP Nikki Kaye, to CBD business leaders and Ngāti Whatua, has supported the progressive closure of the CBD used-car and container port. Labour matriarch Annette King was passionate about port reform.
Most important, New Zealand's kingmaker, Winston Peters, made a "cast-iron commitment" in 2017 to move operations to NorthPort by the end of 2027. He promised then that used-car imports would be moved north by the end of this year.
Predictably, the port made a mockery of Peters' promise by instead beginning construction this year of its new five-storey building to house used-car imports.
This is typical. The port's board and management seem to pay no attention to the views of their owner, the Auckland Council, or its elected representatives, or anyone at all.
Equally true to brand, Goff seems to have fallen largely in line with the port's perspective, saying the law prevents him from getting involved in decision-making.
The port has proposed that it should be split into two companies — an OpCo running its operations and to be privatised soon afterwards, and a LandCo owning the land for the Council.
Disingenuously, it is claimed that this would allow for more commercial decisions to be made about the port's future.
In fact, it would secure the port at its current location, with OpCo's only real value ahead of privatisation being that it would hold a long-term lease over the land, which it could then enforce in the courts. It's easy to believe Goff may not understand this, but very difficult to believe the port management doesn't.
The port will fight hard against Peters and the project's responsible minister, Shane Jones, and also against Ardern if she gives them the green light.
Among the port's potential supporters is Transport Minister Phil Twyford, who worries that the port project will suck money, energy and perhaps transport corridors away from his vision of an airport tram.
But, having failed voters in Northland, Auckland and the provinces by being shut out of Twyford's Government Policy Statement on Land Transport last month, Peters and Jones cannot afford to lose on the port question.
For Ardern, the politics are just as obvious. She personally supports the port's closure, and throwing Labour's support behind the NZ First plan would tie them to her for a second term and well beyond.
The Prime Minister may also be able to force National to take the wrong side. Despite Key's stance, there are elements in National who see support for the state-owned, congestion-inducing and economic-loss-making port as some sort of litmus test for right-wing credentials.
In fact, it is a relic from pre-1984 New Zealand: the Post Office telephone service of our times. National needs to play a very careful game or it risks getting permanently offside not just with Peters and Jones, but with voters through the Upper North Island.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist. He has no commercial interest in the port issue.