You know things are getting weird when Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf starts channelling the Victorian era and Oscar Wilde to talk about Auckland.

Last week, Makhlouf ventured up to Auckland to deliver a speech titled "The Importance of Being Auckland." The title was a riff on playwright Oscar Wilde's comedy the Importance of Being Earnest. It is a satire on the mores of Victorian society, the tale of a man who leads a double life. In the city he is frivolous socialite Ernest while in the country he is a responsible Uncle Jack. The full title is The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.

Makhlouf's message was it was time for people - in particular politicians - to start getting serious about the trivial comedy that is Auckland City.

There were signs of progress when the Government this week caved into the inevitability of bringing some sort of road user charges in Auckland to try to address congestion as part of the transport accord between Council and Government.


In Auckland, transport and housing are what the weather is to London. Of the two, transport is the more egalitarian irritant. By and large, housing is only a problem for people who don't have a house. Traffic annoys everyone without fear or favour. Everything about it annoys people - from massive traffic jams to window washers whose "clients" get held hostage by queues at the lights.

It is the main irritant in common. That means it is also what Aucklanders bleat to their MPs about. That is why the Government has spent more than $14 billion on Auckland transport. It is why the Government caved in on the City Rail Link and agreed to bring its funding forward a few years. It is why National MP Jami-Lee Ross put up a bill to halt those window washers, and it is also why the Government has finally albeit partially caved in to the prospect of things such as congestion charges.

It has warned any action will be years away. The technicalities of congestion charging are yet to be worked through. The longer things take, the happier the National Government will be.

When freeway express lanes were trialled in Los Angeles in 2012 there was some concern about culture shock for car-loving southern Californians who at the time had only one toll road. That sounds familiar.

Aucklanders too have long been wedded to their cars. They too only have one toll road to contend with at a time and there was a very long gap between tolls - the Harbour Bridge tolls were removed in 1984 and the next did not come along until the Northern Gateway tolls north of Auckland in 2009.

After the pilot scheme for the Los Angeles express lanes was announced in 2012, one resident responded, "We now have to pay to drive on the freeway. We'll have to pay to breathe air next."

Therein lies the rub for the National. When National adopted Labour policies such as Working for Families and interest-free student loans it was because it was politically risky to take away money people were used to getting. The same applies to making people pay for something they used to get for free.

A move toward congestion charges has been helped by cities which have gone before ... It is the new accessory for a city that has come of age.


Within an hour of the backdown on congestion charges Labour's Phil Twyford criticised it as "whack[ing] commuters with a massive tax for the privilege of using a road network that they've already paid for".

Beyond that, the proposal had a fairly warm reception. A move toward congestion charges has been helped by cities which have gone before such as London, Stockholm and Singapore which use congestion pricing. It is the new accessory for a city that has come of age. But it is one thing to moot it in the abstract and quite another thing to bring into being something that hits people's pockets.

National is still sensitive to the politics of imposing any "Jafa levies" on Aucklanders. The Government's bottom lines have always been that tolls can be used for new roads but not existing roads and that there has to be an alternative free route. That is why it sees congestion charges as a means to try to reduce rush-hour traffic rather than to raise revenue and plans to offset it by reducing other levies such as fuel.

It learned about the dangers of tolling the hard way - in 1980 the Muldoon-led National Government increased tolls on the Harbour Bridge from 20 to 25c. That became a campaign issue in the East Coast Bays byelection in the same year. National lost the seat.

Whether or not the announcements of this week turn into something more concrete or come a cropper to politics, it at least bodes well for relations between the Government and Auckland Council.

Those have been fractious. The Government's decision to step in over Auckland Council to manage the waterfront during the Rugby World Cup set an early standard. The Housing Accord signed in 2013 has been fraught with problems and finger pointing. In transport, successive transport ministers - Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee - poo-pooed Auckland Mayor Len Brown's proposals for raising revenue to pay for the projects.

Admittedly, some of those options were barmy - such as the proposal for a higher income tax rate or GST rate in Auckland. Other were less so, such as the congestion charge the Government is now looking at.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges has taken a more conciliatory tone than his predecessors.

What might have helped Bridges was the need for National to build up political capital on at least one of the issues plaguing Auckland given the ongoing battle over housing. Whether Auckland Council and the Government will now wander off into the sunset hand in hand is questionable. The two parties may be near agreement on the means but there is still a vast chasm when it comes to the ends. Key expects it to be offset by levy reductions elsewhere. Auckland Council wants to raise revenue for projects such as a second harbour crossing and better links to the airport.

Meanwhile, Makhlouf was warning Auckland it was time to turn into responsible Uncle Jack.

He issued a warning that selling ever-higher-priced houses to each other was not the way to nirvana. He pointed to the progress and the problems, one of which was a strong focus on local interests and the welfare of existing homeowners. "We are concerned that the impact of Nimbyism in Auckland affects people elsewhere in the country."

Auxit anyone?