Ports of Auckland's nemesis Wayne Brown has a pretty thick hide after years of knocking public services into shape but he's getting snippy about being labelled an NZ First plaything with his latest reform project.
Brown is chairman of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group, a mouthful handle for what essentially is a controversial idea to shift the Ports of Auckland cargo operations to Whangarei's deepwater port Northport.
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The idea for the UNISCS study is NZ First's and is being championed by MP Shane Jones, Associate Minister of Transport and self-styled "prince of the provinces" as Regional Economic Development Minister. That a study be done to determine an optimal port and supply chain network for the future was a requirement of NZ First's Coalition agreement with Labour.
The working group's recommendation the waterfront be closed to all but cruise ships to free up $6 billion of land for Aucklanders and relieve CBD congestion because the Auckland Council-owned ports are not viable economically and environmentally has, predictably, outraged vested interests.
And no-one seems at all convinced the move north could be done for as little as the cited $10b.
While Brown is dismissive of the reaction - he's a maverick who doesn't conform to business culture norms and tends to call people who don't see things his way "idiots" - he does get exercised by the vested interests like car importers accusing him of having vested interests.
Critics hang this charge on the fact Brown calls Northland home. Shane Jones comes from Northland and would be the first to say he wants votes from there next year.
Brown would like to put it on record that his Mangonui home in the Far North is further from Whangarei than Auckland is. An engineer turned successful entrepreneur - he says so, often - he also has an apartment with a sea view in Ponsonby. Its value, he says, would undoubtedly rise if the waterfront was cleared of unsightly "empty boxes" - but that's all that's in the working group's recommendation for him personally.
It's certainly not the pay. He got $900 a day. "I'd pay more than that in tax every day." Besides, he didn't have time to put in more than four days a month on the project.
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He doesn't know which political party recommended him for the job - the group reported to three Cabinet ministers - but suspects it was Labour. He denies leaking the group's final report, now with Cabinet ministers, to news media. The NZX is looking into a jump last week in the share price of Northport half owner Marsden Maritime Holdings. Jones' office also denies leaking the report.
The critics' charge that he's a good mate of Jones' just makes Brown laugh.
"I'm a friend of Helen Clark. I'm a far closer friend of hers than (I am) Shane Jones'. And I'm quite a good friend of Bill English.
"If you do the things I do you're friends with everybody. The work I've done means I know a lot of senior politicians and I've been appointed to roles by National and Labour."
A specialist in infrastructure - "there's not many of us around" - Brown is a former chairman of Transpower, Vector and the Auckland DHB. He's been chairman of the Northland DHB and is a former mayor of the Far North District Council. An infrastructure builder and owner - "I own roads, I own pipe networks" - he's also a property developer and commercial property owner, including in Auckland. He reckons he pays more rates in Auckland than most of the critics put together.
"The term business case is something people who aren't in business clutch at to avoid making decisions. We weren't hired to make a business case. We were hired to say what is the best thing they (Government) should do. The best thing they should do is make a decision to shift it.
"I challenge anyone to write a business case for what they're (the ports company) doing now.
"How can you justify a miserable $8.5 million dividend for using $6 billion worth of land? And inflicting all that truck-derived congestion on a city already jammed.
(This is the dividend the port company will pay ratepayers via the council next year because of its capital spending programme).
"Another thing these idiots say is that it'll put up the cost of goods in Auckland. Already a third of the stuff that comes into Auckland comes via Tauranga and nothing in a shop says it costs more because it comes from Tauranga."
Told some industry stakeholders consulted by the working group told the Herald they'd washed their hands of involvement early because the outcome was "so predetermined" to favour Northland, Brown really hits his stride.
"The bias is towards Auckland not Northland. All but one of the working group live in Auckland, and I live there part-time.
"Did we predetermine there was a deepwater port up north which already brings in the nation's fuel? Did we predetermine Ports of Auckland would make such miserable returns on such a lot of valuable land?
"Did we predetermine that Ports of Auckland wanted to pick up two million cubic metres of rock out of the Rangitoto Channel to get deepwater berths which you can get without any dredging at Northland?
"Did we predetermine that all those trucks at the bottom of Queen St are creating so much congestion? Did we predetermine there are five sets of traffic lights between the ports and a motorway which is already jammed?
"Did we predetermine that the biggest owners of trucks in Auckland told us congestion is so bad they can only do two return deliveries a day between Southdown (inland hub) and the ports, and they can do the same between the ports and Whangarei?
"We didn't predetermine all that - those are the facts."
And before the critics leap in again saying there will be even more trucks on the road if freight and cars are trucked back to Auckland from Northport, Brown reminds of the paragraph in bold in the group's interim report which spelt out none of the proposal will be possible without development of rail.
Jones announced in September $100m had been earmarked from the Provincial Growth Fund to start upgrading the rail line between Helensville and Whangarei. In addition, KiwiRail received $1b in this year's Budget for rejuvenating the country's rail system.
Brown says what a lot of critics miss is that New Zealand's future export growth will come from Northland. And the northwest of Auckland is where the current development action is. The working group proposes a new rail-served freight hub there so freight can enter the city from two points.
"Why are well-informed companies like Costco and Ikea going to northwest Auckland? If you have an inland hub there all of a sudden North Shore is serviced around the upper harbour highway and you can put off building a second crossing (bridge) for another 20 years. There are so many advantages to this.
"Export growth won't come from the Waikato. The dairy industry there is going backwards and dairying is coming north. Bay of Plenty kiwifruit is moving to Kerikeri and the avocado industry's moved north of Kaitaia.
"Those exports are being put on a truck to Auckland and train to Tauranga. That's not good for New Zealand. It's really stupid."
Brown says the clamour from the car import industry is "all the old established car guys with (distribution system) investments in south Auckland who don't want to have to shift things".
"The young guys are buying land around Ruakaka."
The recent annual report of Northport 50 per cent shareholder Marsden Maritime Holdings tends to support Brown's claims. The Ruakaka-based listed company said it was experiencing its highest ever level of inquiry and was talking to several potential large-scale tenants.
To accommodate future demand for developed land MMH was planning to start work on infrastructure on farmland neighbouring its industrial subdivision in the 2020 financial year.
Brown says "there's too much of the people of Auckland telling us what's good for Auckland is good for New Zealand. It's not.
"Auckland is not the centre of New Zealand business. It's the centre of New Zealand expenditure.
"It produces hardly any exports. What it does is in IT, education and tourism. And you don't need a port for those.
"It's a cost to New Zealand. We live on the back of the regions."