National leader Simon Bridges says he's changed his mind on the Auckland port. "I once was anti but I'm not now," he said yesterday, in an interview with the NZ Herald which looked ahead to New Zealand over the next 10 years.
The comment reveals he is open to the idea of the port moving, although he doesn't have a firm view yet on whether it should happen, or where it should go.
Among his other views:
• New Zealand should have a high-wage economy.
• National is "a party of roads".
• The country needs to move away from its economic focus on tourism and dairy.
• The "first thousand days" of a child's life need a "huge emphasis".
• A dedicated busway for Auckland's northwest is a transport priority.
• National is the party most capable of moving the port.
With the current decade drawing to a close, the Herald sat down with Bridges to talk about some of the key issues facing New Zealand in the 2020s.
He said whether the Auckland port should move is "a good question to ask".
Deciding how to do it and where it should go is "bloody hard", although he thought the claims of Tauranga had a lot of merit.
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"Realistically," he said, "if there's a party in government to do it, the irony is, it would probably be ours. Because I think we're good at that stuff."
He reminded the Herald that he was minister of transport in the last Government. "If I'm good at one thing, I mean, [Sir John] Key always gave me infrastructure stuff. Because I get things done."
Herald: There's a lot of talk of a rural-urban divide. Is it real and how big is it?
Bridges: I think it is real, but I wouldn't want to overstate it and I wouldn't want to ham it up. I think there's a sadness among rural communities that they are not properly understood. Their role as environmental stewards, their economic role in terms of 60-70 per cent of New Zealand's export dollars. There's a sense that that's not understood.
Do you think that's reasonable? Do city people understand that?
I think actually a majority of New Zealanders do know where the milk comes from, they understand those things.
Many of us have families links back to the farm.
Correct. I look at my story, my mother grew up on a dairy farm in the Waikato, although it was only 40-50 cows as opposed to 1500. So I think the vast majority do. But I suppose there is a reality in a set of communities in regional New Zealand, people who do feel somewhat under siege.
This is about climate change. What's the message for urban New Zealanders? What should they be doing?
I think what is required is mutual understanding and sensible practical steps. I believe emergency rhetoric is overblown, but that doesn't mean we do nothing. I'm not arguing for some complacent view.
I look at New Zealand and I say actually this is complicated but at a high level quite simple. Nearly half of our emissions are from farming. We should be looking at how we do things like getting into biotech. Looking at how we scientifically turn the dial on that.
The other half [of emissions] is transport. You know I've been a booster of electric vehicles. I also accept a role for public transport.
Do you think we'll need to change our behaviour in relation to climate change over the next 10 years?
Yes, but I do think there's a question of radicalism, if you like. I've heard [PM] Jacinda Ardern and [Climate Change Minister] James Shaw talk about this as well. If you look at the 80s and the economic reforms then, you can move too far, too fast and hurt a lot of people.
You said, "Yes, but". Why is the "but" there?
It's because if you take the car tax, for example, my concern is that there are vast swathes of Aucklanders, they have burdens coming on them and an inability to deal with them. It's all very well saying buy the Tesla or even the Mitsubishi PHEV, but if that's not a realistic option for them, and their car gets a tax, I think that's counterproductive and actually hurtful for a lot of people.
The answer for many people will be mass transit, but your party hasn't been keen on endorsing it.
The reality is, we're a party of roads, I'm not making an apology for that. Electric vehicles, buses, they go on roads. But it's also true that I started the CRL and we were a Government that electrified rail.
The Government now has been very short on action. They've got announcements coming very soon, we'll see what they are. We need a plan. And I come back to it, our transport, where all of us go, were our freight goes, is still roads. To get people around we will need to do that.
The light rail process is under way: the two shortlisted bidders have submitted their proposals and there will be announcement early in the new year. Will National support the development of light rail for Auckland?
Two things. Firstly, a simple point, we had a promise from Jacinda Ardern, her first as Prime Minister as PM, about 2021. But I don't think we'll have spades in the ground by the late 20s.
Second, there are quicker wins that would turn the dial, make a more meaningful difference than light rail down Dominion Rd.
What are you thinking of?
Mill Rd [in south Auckland]. The Northwest Busway. A variety of other projects in west and south Auckland.
This is not necessarily a definite "No" on light rail. But it is a scepticism when I think there are other quicker wins that would make a difference to Auckland.
The Northwest Busway was stopped by the last National-led Government, but the current Government has announced the project will start again.
Well, I don't know about that. I mean, look, I've heard Phil Twyford [Minister of Transport], but I think the point is, there are a bunch of things happening, they have been stopped and we need to see action.
In 10 years' time, will we have a high-wage economy?
I'd like to think so. I think that is the most important part of answering the question about the decade.
I think it does come down to the economy. Ultimately, when an economy is not going well, a Government can't do the things we're talking about and there's less money in people's pockets to do what they want.
But you do think we should have a high-wage economy?
Apart from the unions, who else advocates for that?
The National Party advocates for this every day. But I think there's a question about the ways and the means to do it.
You were opposed to raising the minimum wage as this Government has done.
Because I see the effect on small businesses, every single day. Their costs have gone up but their incomes have not. They're squeezed.
Isn't there a gap between what you're saying now and the idea of having a high-wage economy?
There's an absolute reality with what I'm saying. The truth of New Zealand today is growth was forecast to be, like, 3.5 per cent, but it's not. There's $5 billion less swilling around the economy, a third of that tax, which means New Zealanders aren't as well off and actually a Government can't do the things it wants to.
In 10 years' time will our economy be as depended on tourism and dairying as it is now?
I hope not. I do want to see diversification. If you take primary production generally, the caricature of it's all dairy. Well, in my area it's kiwifruit, we've seen horticulture go great guns, we've got wine, a very high value.
This Government is blind to science and the land-use changes that will happen naturally, rather than through taxing stuff out of existence. I also worry about what's happening in forestry, where they've skewed the overseas investment rules and I think that is quite hurtful to rural communities, in terms of jobs and the social fabric.
If you're the Prime Minister in 10 years' time, what do you think we should measure you by?
It would be all the stuff we've talked about, economic things, all these infrastructure things. It may surprise you it would also be education. I feel incredibly strongly about that.
I think the standards aren't quite there. I think the first thousand days needs a huge emphasis. And with job training, whether it's apprenticeships or universities, I think we've got a big job to do.
I come back to it though. Without that strong, yes, high-wage economy, you don't get to do those things.