I'm all for giving people a second chance, and of roads to redemption and all that, but appointing Sir Michael Cullen to the board of Auckland Transport - with, it seems, a nudge nudge, wink wink, that he will eventually replace Lester Levy as chair, left me gasping.

Is this the same Michael Cullen, who as finance minister in the Clark Government, initially refused to countenance the electrification of Auckland's trains services, and when he finally changed his mind, made Aucklanders pay 50 per cent of the cost, while Wellingtonians were required to pay just 20 per cent of their rail upgrade costs.

Is this the same Michael Cullen who on the election trail, titillated a Taranaki audience by quipping that "Auckland now sits atop the nation like a great crushing weight".

Mayor Phil Goff, a Cabinet colleague of Cullen's at the time, says "I think he's seen the error of his ways", and will "bring a sense of political awareness to it that didn't exist before".


By way of excuse he laughs that ministers of finance tend to be against everything until persuaded otherwise, pointing out that eventually Cullen and the Labour Government did agree to double tracking and electrification of the rail system and rebirthing of Auckland passenger rail.

But the precedent of forcing ratepayers to pay a major share of the costs of rail projects was set, and has been carried over to the $3.4 billion City Rail Link (CRL) - a new rail tunnel that will become part of the national rail network asset bank.

When I checked this out a couple of years back, this was a first. All New Zealand's 145 rail tunnels, except for the odd 19th century ones built as part of private railways, were government built and maintained. When the new electric service between Wellington and Johnsonville opened a few years back, the Government paid to widen and lower seven tunnels and other general upgrades.

Wearing his Auckland mayoral cap, it's an anomaly that rankles with Goff.

"They should have paid for the City Rail Link quite frankly. This is the only piece of rail line in New Zealand they don't pay 100 per cent for and Steven Joyce [Minister of Finance] says we're not putting enough into transport. Transport is going to take about 85 per cent of our capital funding in the coming year..."

Perhaps Cullen's first task, carefully decked out in a suit of sackcloth and ashes, should be to take that message to Joyce.

By way of excuse he laughs that ministers of finance tend to be against everything until persuaded otherwise.


True, in its dying stages, the Clark Government did legislate for a regional fuel tax to give Aucklanders another means of self-help, but the incoming National Government repealed that before it could be employed. Despite pleas from Auckland, it refuses to relent.

With the Government allowing an annual inflow of 45,000 extra residents into Auckland, but refusing new funding streams to support this growth, the mayor's frustrations are understandable.

"Central government has always regarded local government as subsidiary to central government but between Labour and National, they created this Super City, which I think is the right thing to do, but they didn't change the funding. " says Goff.

"They fund us as though we are still 29 borough councils as we were before 1989."

He says that having created a city with 36 per cent of New Zealand's population and 50-60 per cent of its growth, "it can't be funded in a traditional way".

He was in Melbourne a fortnight ago and enthuses about how state government helps fund it's "fantastic public transport system." Melbourne infrastructure funding comes from a payroll tax, stamp duty on property sales and a share of GST. State funding of major infrastructure occurs in all the big Australian cities.

Here in Auckland, Goff would be grateful for full Government funding of arterial roads as a start, along with a change of heart over the fuel tax. He's also looking at a "value uplift levy" or betterment tax, to extract some of the windfall profits that property owners living along the route of, say the CRL, gain through this major investment of public money.

But crucially, what is needed, is acceptance by central government of the Australian model, and acceptance that Auckland ratepayers cannot, by themselves, fund the infrastructure needs of New Zealand's only big city.