As a strong supporter for more than a decade of developing Auckland's waterfront, I am deeply grateful to Helen Clark and John Key for declaring it is time for Auckland's used-car and container port to move.
At the same time, the fact that our two most successful political leaders this century didn't make progress on the issue raises unsettling questions about the speed and agility of New Zealand's decision-making processes.
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Clark and Key were colossi. Through both their prime ministerships, the port issue was on the horizon, with everyone — including the port's own management — agreeing that it needs eventually to move. All economic analyses and public opinion polling point to that conclusion.
Had Clark or Key led on the issue, it would be gone by now and a new world-class and properly networked port constructed elsewhere. Yet, for some reason, neither apparently felt able to do so.
The excesses of the Muldoon era in general and the Think Big projects in particular led to a much-needed correction in Wellington, with better processes put in place to ensure the rigour of capital expenditure decisions. We must never return to a free-for-all where politicians, no matter how popular or powerful, can draw lines on maps for new roads, railways or dams.
But at the same time, the pendulum has now swung so far the other way that politicians refuse to make decisions at all unless they have been completely de-risked, financially, logistically and politically.
The constant demand is for yet more data, more reviews and more working groups until — ministers hope — they can be presented with a so-called business case where the solution is mathematically indisputable and completely risk-free.
These same politicians, of course, have never seen a commercial business case, which would never seek to answer all questions a decade or even a year hence, but instead make a case for a project based on identified uncertainties.
People with commercial backgrounds who find themselves in government roles are perplexed when their political masters continue to demand greater assurances about risk than is remotely possible in an uncertain world.
In reality, the politicians are not truly looking for information to guide a decision but simply for reasons to avoid taking a decision at all.
With few ever having had governance experience, they seem not to understand that the very role of a senior executive and board of directors — or minister and Cabinet — is to take those decisions for which no technical analysis can provide a definitive answer.
Previous New Zealand leaders were prepared to make decisions which were not just bold but globally unique and which had inherently unpredictable results.
Yet it is those very decisions of which various New Zealanders are most proud, including universal suffrage, Savage's welfare state, Fraser's universal education system, Muldoon's Think Big, Lange's anti-nuclear policy, Douglas and Richardson's economic reforms, and Bolger and Graham's Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.
At a stretch, we could add Clark's Working for Families and perhaps even Key making the management of the Government's asset portfolio respectable again with his Mixed Ownership Model share floats.
Less highfalutin', Clark gave Auckland the Waterview Tunnel and Key the Waikato Expressway despite both being against official advice.
None of these decisions was straightforward, all were contentious and most were opposed by the bureaucracy, but each has turned out to be for the best.
Even with Think Big, where exactly would New Zealand be today were reports still being written on whether to build the Clyde Dam or the Marsden Point oil refinery? The anti-nuclear dispute with the US surely turned out not to be irrelevant when establishing the Four Firsts with China. Nobody genuinely argues that the dollar should be fixed or compulsory unionism reintroduced. Farmers are proud not to be subsidised.
MMP is blamed for politicians not taking the bold decisions of their predecessors, but the slowing of decision-making cannot be attributed to Coalition Government alone. At least as important is the rise of a professional political class with no experience outside politics and the bureaucracy.
Most notorious are the current Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, who have worked not a day in the private sector since university summer jobs, but the National Party is increasingly heading in the same direction.
With unworldly ministers lacking confidence to do more than passively await advice from their officials, the trend is to defer decision-making and even policy-making to so-called independent agencies.
There can be good reasons for this. Nobody wants politicians setting interest rates. But the combined effect is undermining the system's ability to make speedy and agile decisions and draining democratic legitimacy.
Take the Finance Minister's job. Monetary policy is run by the Reserve Bank, fiscal policy is controlled by artificial spending and debt targets, climate change policy will be the domain of the new Climate Change Commission and capital expenditure put under the wing of the new Infrastructure Commission.
Beyond picking up their salaries and enjoying the perks, there is an ever-diminishing role for the politician and consequently for the voter — yet there is indisputable evidence from the 20th century that government bureaus make worse decisions on average than democratic processes with all their apparent chaos.
Poor Phil Twyford is a classic victim. His airport tram was part of the Labour and Green manifestos and their Confidence and Supply Agreement, one of the documents on which the Government's very legitimacy depends. Under that deal, work was meant to begin on the tram this parliamentary term. In fact, not even the most rudimentary decisions are likely to have been made in three years.
Personally, I am thrilled about this. But while this taxpayer and voter is as strongly opposed to the tram as I am supportive of moving the port, what are the consequences of governments being unable or unwilling to make meaningful decisions — not just to New Zealand's ability to respond quickly and agilely to changing conditions, but to public faith in the democratic process?
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist. He is one of a number of people helping the newly launched Waterfront 2029 campaign pro bono.