National and Labour have ramped up attacks on each other for what National says is the politicisation of climate-change funding.
National now intends to write to Parliament’s spending watchdog, the Auditor-General, about the affair, asking him to investigate.
The complaint is over Labour MPs being given an early heads up on an opportunity to bid for $350 million in funding from the Transport Choices programme for projects that would help people use greener transport. The funding comes from emissions trading scheme revenue and was announced in May, but councils were only allowed to begin bidding for their allocation on August 3.
The party took issue with a letter from Transport Minister Michael Wood to Labour MPs on June 27 telling them to work with councils to get their bids in - and to contact his office directly for ideas.
While councils, not MPs, made the actual bids to Waka Kotahi - NZ Transport Agency, it was ministers who had the final say over where the funding went and National says it is worrying that no other party’s MPs were invited to make bids to the minister.
Labour defended the way the spending was handled on Wednesday, releasing the full letter from Wood calling on his MPs to encourage councils to submit funding ideas.
“[A]s Waka Kotahi engages with councils about possible programmes for investment, I want to encourage you to spread the message about how critical providing competitive transport choices are to reducing emissions and support these important initiatives, as they get underway,” Wood said.
“You may also want to encourage councils to identify which gaps in their networks, and supporting investments, may make the greatest difference to people’s travel choices,” he said.
But the letter also left the door open to discussing potential ideas directly with Wood, who held final decision rights on the projects.
“If you have any queries about the Transport Choices Package or would like to bring potential projects in your area to my attention, please contact my office,” the letter said.
National retaliated by publishing the letter about the project they were sent by Wood on December 4, nearly six months after Labour MPs were asked to think of ideas
The letters to National MPs went out at the same time the Government began announcing successful applications to the fund, and three months after applications closed.
Unlike the letters to Labour MPs, the National letters did not encourage MPs to come to the minister with ideas. Instead, they offer up a contact at Waka Kotahi to keep them up to date on the projects.
National transport spokesman Simeon Brown noted that his letter included an amusing warning the package might not be delivered on time.
“While every effort has been made to select certain projects, there will be moments when materials costs or localised issues hold up the progress. Unforeseen scope changes might occur during the design phase, leading to unaffordable cost increases, or it may become too difficult to meet the June 2024 delivery timeframe,” the letter to Brown said.
While the Government released the official letter from Wood to MPs about the fund, the Labour Party has refused to release the communications sent by Labour’s political (as distinct from governmental) wing at Parliament, the Labour Leader’s Office or LLO.
An email from Tracey McLellan MP to Wood’s office from July 14 mentioned that the LLO had been in touch about bidding for money from the fund.
Brown said it is inappropriate for the political wing of Labour’s Parliamentary operation to get involved in bidding for funding one month before applications opened to councils.
“It is incredibly concerning that not only was the Minister going out to his MPs prior to expressions of interest formally opening but the Labour Leader’s Office was getting involved in currying bids, no doubt to try and ensure that the fund was used for political purposes - an outrageous abuse of this process,” Brown said.
Brown said questions needed to be asked about why so much funding flowed to Labour’s electorates. National alleges the funding is a bid to shore up support in electorates in advance of next year’s general election.
Wood said the lack of funding to National electorates was not a result of their MPs not being invited to submit proposals, but because they lacked the “wit” to put bids in.
“We did talk to all MPs about this policy and all MPs have the ability to put forward ideas and National MPs regularly contact me about issues they want me to look at,” Wood said.
“I think it is telling that when we put $350m in investment on the table, not one National Party MP had the wit or the interest in the issue to actually develop any ideas,” he said.
Meanwhile, Labour lashed out at National for its own pork barreling, including former transport minister Simon Bridges promising bridges for Northland during the Northland byelection of 2015.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw tweeted links to the Northland bridges and funding John Key’s government earned from asset sales, which was funnelled into regional roads.
Then-Green Party co-leader Russel Norman called that a “slush fund”.