National is accusing Labour of turning climate change money into a political slush fund after Labour MPs were given a heads up on $350 million of new transport spending more than a month ahead of opening applications for councils.
MPs were encouraged to think of projects in their electorates that could be funded by the spending. Documents show those requests were apparently guided by advice from the Labour Leader’s Office, the political part of the Labour Party’s parliamentary operation.
The funding in question was the $350 million Transport Choices package, which is meant to help people take greener forms of transport like cycling or public transport. The package was funded with emissions trading scheme revenue and announced at the emissions reduction plan in May.
National transport spokesman Simeon Brown, who requested the documents under the Official Information Act, accused the Government of “pork barrel politics”, saying Labour was targeting the funding at its electorates to help MPs win their seats back.
“It’s a slush fund. This is a deliberate attempt to use this fund for pork barrel politics from a Labour Party that is increasingly desperate,” Brown said.
The documents show Transport Minister Michael Wood wrote to Labour MPs on June 27, apparently letting them know about the scheme and encouraging them to put forward bids for funding - the documents did not include this letter.
Throughout June and July several MPs wrote back to Wood with funding proposals.
It was only on August 3, more than a month after Wood had notified MPs about the funding, that Waka Kotahi NZ-Transport Agency actually opened itself up to expressions of interest from councils, who were meant to bid for the funding.
Wood told the Herald that all of the funding bids, regardless of lobbying from Labour MPs, were made by councils to Waka Kotahi. It assessed those proposals, but the final decision on funding was left to ministers.
“Transport Choices is a Crown-funded initiative that was announced in May as part of the Climate Emergency Response Fund,” he said.
“At the time we were clear that there would be a process in which we’d work with local communities to develop these projects.
“In June, I wrote to my Labour colleagues, reminding them of the purpose of the fund and encouraged them to engage with their local communities and councils to support awareness and help in the collation of bids ideas.
“Waka Kotahi assessed bids from council, but final funding decisions rested with Ministers.
“I am confident that this helped to ensure significant interest in the programme and the high quality of bids developed.
“For clarity MPs did not make bids that were assessed by Waka Kotahi.”
Forty-six councils ended up having projects funded, including 397 new or upgraded bus stops, and 242km of cycleways.
Brown’s Official Information Act request included correspondence from MPs Megan Woods, Vanushi Walters, Steph Lewis and Tangi Utikere putting forward proposals for the fund.
Some letters imply the MPs are bidding for funding from Wood, rather than recommending proposals from their local councils as was actually the case.
In the case of some letters the MPs were recommending projects before Waka Kotahi had even opened for expressions of interest.
Whanganui MP Steph Lewis wrote to Wood on July 29: “I am pleased to write to you with a list of potential projects to consider funding as part of the Transport Choices Package. Thank you for the opportunity to be included in the process of selecting potential funding recipients”
She ended her letter, saying, “I look forward to discussing these projects with you further.”
All the letters mention the co-operation of councils with the MPs.
An email from Tracey McLellan MP to Wood’s office from July 14 mentioned that the Labour Leader’s Office, the political part of the party’s operations in Parliament - distinct from the Prime Minister’s Office, which focuses on the governing side - was involved in arranging how MPs canvassed bids for funding.
“In line with the recent notification from LLO Comms regarding the above, we have reached out to schools in the Banks Peninsula electorate asking them to identify potential projects that may align with the above package,” she wrote.
Brown said the Government was trying to greenwash the proposal.
“No matter how much greenwashing Labour tries to do with this it is still pork barrel politics,” Brown said.
“It is trying to support transport emission reduction, instead it’s supporting Labour Party MPs.”