John Key: "The opportunity to unlock the full potential of a world-class city"
Helen Clark: "A win/win for Northland and for Auckland"
Sir John Key and Helen Clark have joined forces. In a move designed to put pressure on the Government, the National-led Opposition and Auckland Council, the former Prime Ministers from different sides of the political divide have combined to promote the idea the Auckland port should be moved to Northland.
The campaign follows the announcement this month that the Government's working group on the future of the ports and freight in the upper North Island has submitted its third and final report. It calls the Auckland port operations unsustainable and says they should be moved to Northport, at Marsden Pt near Whangārei.
As three-term Prime Ministers, Key and Clark are New Zealand's most influential politicians of the MMP era. For much of their careers, they attacked each other in Parliament. Now are they are both part of a massive new Facebook campaign with messages intended to influence government ministers who will consider the proposal to shift the port.
This is the first time since leaving office the two have lined up together on a major political issue.
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In his Facebook message, Key says, "The real opportunity to unlock the full potential of a world-class city like Auckland rests with relocating the port. I fully support this sensible initiative."
Clark's message says, "It's a big vision & would be a win/win for Northland & Auckland. My humble opinion as an Aucklander for more than 5.5 decades ..."
In another message posted on Twitter pointing to the Herald's initial story on the report, she says, "Much to be said for big vision for upper North Is port infrastructure: regional development/employment benefits for Northland, + could realise benefits for #worldclasscity development for Auckland; better than car park vision of #POAL for Akl waterfront."
The views of the former leaders aside, neither the Labour-led Government nor the National Party has yet declared a position on the port proposal.
The working group is known as the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (Uniscs). Its final report has not been publicly released, but the Herald understands it contains some strong advice for the Government on how to get the process under way.
One proposal is to create a one-year period of grace, to December 2020, during which the port's owner, the Auckland Council, and other participating parties, such as KiwiRail, are invited to "reach commercial agreement" on how the plan will happen. A year for them to get on board, after which, if necessary, the Government should legislate.
Despite the council's ownership, the port is set up under statute, which the report says gives the Government a legitimate role in deciding its future.
In addition, the report wants a new high-powered steering group to be set up, independent of political parties in Parliament and the council.
The new public campaign is called Waterfront 2029. It's been created by Stop Stealing Our Harbour, one of the groups that led the 2015 and 2016 campaign to stop Ports of Auckland extending its operations 100 metres further into the Waitematā.
Spokesman Michael Goldwater told the Herald Waterfront 2019 is now moving to a "positive vision". Its slogan is "Move the Port".
"There's so much support for emancipating the waterfront," he said. "And we realised that the port has to go, or there will be an endless stream of demands to take up more of the harbour."
The Herald understands the campaign has booked 7.7 million Facebook advertisements, which will appear on the feeds of people who live in the electorates of key members of the Government.
The campaign also includes videos, with narration by well-known actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand, and a range of other promotions.
Waterfront 2029 has already written to thousands of Aucklanders asking them for financial support. It wants to raise $250,000.
"We have a database of 1200 supporters," said Goldwater. "We've written to the whole sailing, boating and fishing community, too. And we have 4000 followers on Facebook."
An open letter to be signed by prominent New Zealanders "from the sports, arts and business communities" is being organised. Stop Stealing Our Harbour used the same approach, with the names of 200 people, for its earlier campaign.
John Key was Prime Minister in a National-led Government for almost three terms from 2008, before stepping down in 2016. Helen Clark was Prime Minister in a Labour-led Government, serving three full terms, from 1999 to 2008.
The downtown Auckland port is owned by the Auckland Council and is the country's major entry point for container goods and almost all cars and other vehicles. Uniscs says all those operations should move, but the cruise ships, fishing vessels and some other port activities could remain.
Uniscs says the container and car operations are economically and environmentally unsustainable in their present locations. In addition to enlarging the port at Northport, it proposes a new "freight hub" or inland port in Auckland's northwest, with new rail and road service connecting that hub to the north and south.
In 2016, a working group set up by the Auckland Council came to the same conclusion about the future of the present site, but did not seriously consider Northport as an alternative.
Waterfront 2029's Facebook campaign targets members of the Cabinet development committee, which will be considering the latest Uniscs report on December 4. The committee is full of senior Cabinet members and is chaired by the Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson.
It also includes the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and electorate MPs Kelvin Davis, Phil Twyford, Megan Woods, Chris Hipkins, Nanaia Mahuta, Stuart Nash, Iain Lees-Galloway, Jenny Salesa, Damien O'Connor and Kris Faafoi.
Several senior list MPs, including David Parker, NZ First's Winston Peters and Shane Jones, and Greens co-leader James Shaw, are also members.
The committee is expected to put a recommendation to the full Cabinet before Christmas.
Twyford, who is both Economic Development and Transport Minister, has been reported as holding a sceptical position. But he told the Herald yesterday he believes it is "a serious proposal" and he doesn't dismiss it at all.
"It's so important we get this right," he said. "It's going to Cabinet but there are a lot of questions so we'll probably want to get a bit more work done."
The NZ First ministers are known to be in favour. Ardern has said the port will have to move one day, but has not committed to this plan. Robertson, who will be critical to the outcome, has also not declared a position, and nor has Shaw.
Earlier this year National's finance spokesman, Paul Goldsmith, said there was no evidence to suggest shifting the port would lead to better outcomes for exporters or consumers.
The Uniscs report says the shift north should be completed by 2034, 15 years from now, but it also suggests a "stretch target" of 2029 - an earlier date, by which it says the work could be finished if the necessary political and financial commitments were in place.
Waterfront 2029 has taken its name from that earlier date.
"In Sydney, the decision to move the container port from Darling Harbour was taken in 1969," says Goldwater. "They were fully operational in Botany Bay 10 years later, in 1979. It's not too short a time to get this done."
The Uniscs report says doing nothing is not an option. It points to 55 per cent expected growth in Auckland freight between now and 2042/43. On its current site, the report says, $4 billion will need to be spent on the port and freight operations just to keep them functional.
The report says one of the greatest benefits of moving the port would be its impact on Auckland's traffic congestion. Currently, the roads are so clogged, trucks carrying containers from the port to the inland freight hub at Wiri make just two trips a day. By 2034, it says, a container truck would be leaving the port every 34 seconds.
The proposal would take most of the container trucks off central Auckland motorways and other roads.
The proposal to shift the port has met with resistance, especially from the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, the Employers and Manufacturers Association and Infrastructure NZ.
Two economic consultancies – NZIER and Castalia – have criticised the report for lack of detail, under-estimating the costs involved and, in general, being poorly thought out.
Specific objections include the cost and logistics of building the expanded road and rail links, the cost of the proposed new freight hub, the distance of Northport from the main growth markets for container goods and vehicles, and the environmental impacts of the proposed shift.
Both consultancy analyses were commissioned by Ports of Auckland in response to the second Uniscs report. The new third report is understood to contain more details.
The Herald will be digging into all these issues in the coming days.
Meanwhile, those two long-serving Prime Ministers and the Waterfront 2029 campaign have challenged the Government and the Auckland Council. Are they prepared to think boldly enough to make this change, for the benefit of the people of Auckland and Northland? Or, as the critics believe, do they think the risks are too high and the likely outcomes not worth the effort? If it's the latter, what are they going to do instead?
"The status quo," says the report, "is not an option." Key and Clark have made it clear where they stand.