Once upon a time, back in the mists of time, Winston Peters' Ngapuhi ancestors armed themselves with muskets bought from European traders and headed south to make mischief. Tumult swept the land.

When Governor Hobson arrived in 1840, Ngati Whatua paramount chief Te Kawau seized the moment to protect his land by offering Hobson Auckland land for his capital.

Nearly 200 years on, Aucklanders could be forgiven for thinking Peters and his Northern mates are having another go. The New Zealand First leader made a "cast iron commitment" during the recent election campaign to "bring forward legislation to move all [Ports of Auckland] operations from Auckland to Northport".

"The days of the Ports of Auckland as a container port and as a car yard are numbered," he unilaterally declared. Vehicle deliveries will stop by the end of 2019, and all container operations will be transferred to Whangarei's Northport by 2027.


If that isn't dictatorial enough, the New Zealand First leader also rejected the idea of compensating Auckland ratepayers. Instead, he expects us to fall on our knees in gratitude.

"A return of $50 million on a $3 billion-plus asset doesn't require you to have compensation, in fact they should be compensating me for showing them how they can more wisely use their assets," he said.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, who wants to move the port eventually but not to far-off Whangarei, pointed out to Peters that in a democracy, central government can't just unilaterally say "we're going to take away your asset and put it somewhere else".

He noted that the port brings in about $60 million a year, "the equivalent of about a 4 per cent rate increase".

On the election trail, it was easy to brush this "cast-iron commitment" aside as another of Peters' legendary "bottom lines," alongside the bizarre proposal that before a chap can collect a tax refund, he will have to submit to someone - surely not a tax inspector - checking his prostate.

But post-election, as the leaders of National, Labour and the Greens are busy practising how to fawn before the mighty King-Queen maker, Aucklanders should be very concerned that our thriving, publicly owned port company doesn't end up as collateral damage in the tussle over who ends up running the country.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Sure, National all but dismissed the idea during the campaign, and Labour, while willing to give it "due consideration," included the proviso from leader Jacinda Ardern that any decision on the future of Auckland's port be made "in the best interests of the whole country, not just looking solely at issues of regional economic development".

This was a reference to Peters, as MP for Northland, and his potential heir apparent, Shane Jones, fighting for the Whangarei seat, both pushing the port issue. Both subsequently lost, returning on the party lists.


Hopefully, this rejection by the locals has dampened their ardour for the great Auckland port heist. But just in case, now would be a good time for Auckland to remind both them and their suitors that Auckland's port is not some bauble to be traded by central politicians for political advantage.

A good compromise would be to offer New Zealand First an official inquiry into the rationalisation of New Zealand's 14 major port facilities, something which the major parties have been avoiding for years. The critics of the Northland proposal argue that with more than 70 per cent of incoming cargo at Auckland destined for the greater Auckland area or south, adding a journey by road or rail from Whangarei doesn't make sense. Especially given the state of the existing rail and roading networks.

KiwiRail says an adequate upgrade of the rail network from Marsden Pt to Swanson, north of Auckland, would cost between $500 million and $1 billion.

Then there's the need for a new rail line from Swanson to Wiri costing another $2-3 billion. All to be done by the end of 2019.

It isn't going to happen, and for Auckland's peace of mind, National and Labour should say so.