Prime Minister John Key is unapologetic about rolling out multi-million-dollar promises during the Northland byelection and says more is to come as rivals claim it is simply pork barrelling to try to hold on to the seat.
In a clear bid to outflank NZ First leader Winston Peters, National's candidate Mark Osborne and Transport Minister Simon Bridges yesterday announced a $69 million upgrade to 10 of the 15 one-way bridges on Northland state highways. The announcement followed two polls showing National could struggle to hold the seat against Mr Peters.
Labour leader Andrew Little described it as desperate pork barrelling. Mr Peters said his entry to the race had clearly been effective at pushing National into action, but Northlanders would not fall for such a blatant and belated bribe.
Mr Key said National "unashamedly" wanted to win the byelection. He said it was standard practice to release policies during byelections, although he could not recall instances of National doing so in previous byelections. A further announcement is due this week, possibly on the rollout of rural broadband. That is likely to be on Thursday when Mr Key will make his next visit to support Mr Osborne's campaign.
The bridges were not included in National's big regional roading announcement before the 2014 election and Mr Key said the party decided to put it forward last week. He dismissed Mr Peters' objections as sour grapes. "We are in Government and we can do things. He's in Opposition and he can just yap on about things."
Mr Peters said National had a history of reneging on such promises, pointing out several of the bridges were in the 2009 Northland regional roading plan but were pulled so the funding could be used on National's Roads of National Significance.
"This is their record. And now they have the audacity to think people will believe what they are saying now."
Mr Key also rejected Mr Peters' claim National neglected Northland until Mr Peters became a danger, saying it had spent $750,000 on roading and the $1.75 billion Puhoi-Wellsford highway was coming up.
Good news for campaigner
A campaigner for the upgrade of two one-way bridges in Northland is "absolutely rapt" with National's byelection announcement, albeit sceptical about the timing.
Susie Reyland, a Matakohe farmer's wife, has spearheaded efforts for the upgrade of Hardies Bridge in Matakohe since 2012, when she and her daughter were injured in a crash with a motorhome.
National announced yesterday it would upgrade 10 one-way bridges, including Hardies Bridge. She said the bridge was built in the 1930s and was no longer suitable given the extent to which the roads were now used by large trucks and tankers. There had been numerous accidents, including several fatalities, but the bridges had always been put on the backburner.
Mrs Reyland said former Northland MP Mike Sabin had worked hard on the matter with her. "He was a brilliant MP. It's unfortunate he had to resign for whatever reason." However, it had one benefit - the promises on the byelection campaign.