Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson is relishing his ability to drive progress on major projects that Labour campaigned on in Auckland without the uncertainty of coalition politicking.
Robertson took on the pivotal infrastructure portfolio after the Labour Government was re-elected with a majority in Parliament last September. It had previously been held by former New Zealand First Cabinet Minister Shane Jones.
In early 2020, the then Coalition Government unveiled a big infrastructure spend-up with Auckland to get the lion's share of $6.8 billion in new funds that was to be invested in transport infrastructure — with an emphasis on roads and rail. This meant projects that had long been in the pipeline would finally get under way and access to new housing and industrial estates would be improved, easing congestion in Auckland.
A decision on light rail was to be announced last March and the fate of Auckland's working port by mid-2020.
Neither happened. Serious differences had emerged within the Coalition over the merits of both proposed projects.
Good infrastructure can actually support environmental outcomes. And obviously, it's vitally important to individual wellbeing.
In June 2020, the Coalition Government abandoned what it called a "twin-track process" on light rail between Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) and NZ Infra, a consortium including the NZ Super Fund and CDPQ Infra, a Canadian pension fund.
The Labour Government is now taking another look at light rail.
Robertson says Transport Minister Michael Wood has been working with different colleagues and stakeholders. "I know he wants to get some pretty firm decisions in the next few months, so that would be the timetable I would put on that.
"His first project that he is looking to get nailed down is light rail and then we'll deal with the port in short order from there."
Robertson is not in a position to give a definitive answer to Herald questions over whether a new taskforce will be appointed to reassess where Auckland's port should be shifted; a step he says will ultimately have to take place.
"Michael Wood and I are working through that at the moment. It is very important to take people with us," he explains.
"One of the ways of doing that is actually making sure we openly assess all options. There are clearly two or three alternative site options. Then there is how we work through the port in its current form, in its current operation.
"I still have not heard anyone, including the Ports of Auckland board itself, lay claim to being able to operate a significant deep sea port past the mid-20s, 30s, 40s. And so therefore, we've got some time but not a lot.
"The second thing I would say, is that I continue to believe that it is the network of ports that matters here. Obviously, Tauranga is a significant export port. You have capacity at Whangārei, you have Auckland, and then you have the inland ports.
"I still see it very much in that Upper North Island context."
Robertson's perspective is naturally that of central government. He prioritises transport and housing as "very much as an integrated package".
The Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) is critical to that, and Robertson says Cabinet is in the throes of working through the NZ Upgrade programme.
"The Auckland Housing Programme is the most significant element of our housing programme across New Zealand," he says. "Tens of thousands of houses have to be developed over the next decade. You know we have to get it right. It is the intersection between those two, that I as Minister of Infrastructure, am spending a bit of time on."
As Minister of Infrastructure, Robertson closely liaises with Wood (Transport) and also Housing Minister Megan Woods. "Obviously both have got their responsibilities and one of the things I'm doing as Minister of Infrastructure is making sure that the connections are strong there."
He stresses that as Auckland grows, it is also necessary to integrate transport and housing and, at the same time, manage the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.
"It's actually okay to have a greenfields development south of Auckland, so long as the public transport corridor is being developed," he explains.
"Eventually, it can be an emissions reduction tool at that point where people genuinely need to move by public transport.
"A growing population is going to grow emissions, and so you have to have something that is mitigating that as you go through."
He's also keen to make sure that a partnership approach among government agencies, Auckland Council, iwi, and the private sector stays strong.
"There is no shortage of funding coming from central government. In some cases there is matching funding from council. Just making sure we get those projects sequenced and delivered is really important to me."
Robertson's other topline priority is also a nationwide one — but one which is important to Auckland — is water, particularly, the Three Waters reform programme that his colleague Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is driving.
"That's a significant programme that will improve the way water is managed in all three waters."
The Government launched the three-year programme to reform local government three waters (drinking water, wastewater and stormwater) service delivery arrangements in July 2020.
"Auckland has a little bit of a head start in the sense that Watercare does some of what we're looking for," says Robertson. "But there's still a place for us in thinking about how we've worked together in the upper part of the North Island.
"So you've got number of specific projects, but I do distinguish the port out from that — it's clearly an important and critical decision for not only the upper North Island, but also, you know, New Zealand. We had a couple of false starts, if I can put it diplomatically last term, and so that's on my radar screen as being significant."
Another important issue is the reform of the Resource Management Act. If the RMA is going to work anywhere in New Zealand, it's got to work in Auckland," he says.
"We've already got the national policy statement on urban development out there and I'll really be looking closely at the way Auckland Council responds to that.
"In terms of intensification, Auckland needs everything. It needs to go up. It also needs quality brownfields development. It also needs some greenfield development connected to transport for more sustainable transport outcomes.
"But that is all here and now. The backdrop to that is the RMA reform and so timing is a big thing for Auckland and we need engagement from Auckland in that to make that work well."
Robertson definitely sees a role for the private sector in the development of infrastructure. "It's the reason why we passed that Infrastructure Funding and Financing Act."
He made the point in an address given to InfrastructureNZ's Rebuilding Nations summit late last year that there need to be partners who are prepared to step forward to enable that.
"That means local government. It also means the private sector and it means central government. So we are ready and waiting to be able to use those, we've got some live discussions going on.
"Crown Infrastructure Partners (CIP) are an important player. They've got the experience from Milldale (a 4000-dwelling project CIP funded for Wainui). And we're really willing to see it take off."
Summing up, Robertson places his philosophical approach to infrastructure squarely within the lens of the Living Standards Framework.
"I actually see it as being a significant enabler of our overall wellbeing approach," he says.
"So, just to give examples, in order to improve productivity we've got to be improving the way in which our rail network and our public transport works in Auckland.
"But infrastructure is also an enabler of really good communities. If we build good hospitals, build good schools and good public transport networks we actually build much stronger communities.
"I'm hearing from people more and more that they've got concerns about issues to do with the way people live their lives, so we need to build stronger communities. We can do that through infrastructure.
"Good infrastructure can actually support environmental outcomes. And obviously, it's vitally important to individual wellbeing.
"So, I see infrastructure as actually core to all of those elements of what we're doing. It's got a role to play right across society."