At first blush, Opposition transport spokesman Chris Bishop's pre-Parliament CV is worse even than Jacinda Ardern's.
After joining Young Act while doing his law, history and politics degrees, Bishop's only workplace experience before being elected MP for Hutt South was as a Beehive staffer for Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce and a brief stint as a tobacco lobbyist.
But both his youthful flirtation with Act and success as a student debater indicate Bishop is more interested in ideas and making a difference than the more common National Party aspiration of adequately presiding over the status quo. He also remains an ultra-liberal on questions of personal morality and free speech, and drives an electric car.
However, the area in which Bishop seems set to make the greatest difference is distinctly un-Act.
Speaking to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce this week, Bishop declared that National's transport proposals going into this year's election will be "bigger and better" than the Government's $12 billion package.
This was not Bishop going rogue. His speech had been signed off by the party leadership, including finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith. Wrong-footed by Ardern's audacity in declaring Labour the "party of infrastructure", National was signalling to the business community and the Wellington nomenklatura that it has no intention of ceding that ground.
If National's definition of "bigger and better" is $13b or even $20b, it will struggle to make up the political ground. But within elements of National, the talk is no longer about a billion here and a billion there, but of an exponentially different approach to upgrading New Zealand's provincial roads and failing urban transport networks. Borrowing even $100b for capital investment would increase New Zealand's net public debt to only around 50 per cent of GDP, still well below the OECD average and leaving room to address a shock.
Especially when spread over a decade or more, such a number is not even large in the overall context of government spending, with Grant Robertson planning for annual operating expenses alone to pass $100b in 2022. New Zealand is like a household which spends up large on necessities and luxuries each year, while letting the house fall into disrepair.
National can also justify announcing a very large total for infrastructure investment, given that Bishop is promising to produce a long-term pipeline of guaranteed projects.
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Many of these will be provincial roads. Bishop points out that the very name of his party and the fact it holds every provincial seat except Napier and Palmerston North means it must be concerned about roads between towns that Aucklanders and Wellingtonians have never heard of.
But Bishop sounds almost like a Pt Chev liberal when talking about Auckland and other urban environments.
"The great modern cities of the world," he enthused, "all have integrated multi-modal transport systems where public transport, walking, cycling, and increasingly scootering are valued parts of everyday life." He points to then Transport Minister Simon Bridges having pressed go from central government's side for Auckland's City Rail Link, after his more sceptical predecessors Joyce and Brownlee had held back the taxpayers' Eftpos card.
Nevertheless, Bishop's experience working with Joyce and Brownlee taught him two things.
He admires Brownlee for aggressively and speedily pushing through energy reforms in the first year or so of the Key Government against the advice of much of the bureaucracy and industry, but which he believes have led to increased renewables, lower prices and greater energy security.
In Joyce's office, he rightly came to see the bureaucracy's Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) analysis and Business Case processes as mainly witchcraft.
Neither the transformational Waterview Tunnel, Waikato Expressway nor Transmission Gully ever passed either. Nor, for that matter, would have an original proposal for an eight-lane Auckland Harbour Bridge. Yet these days, Joyce and Helen Clark compete to take the most credit for Waterview, while Ardern had planned to today open the Huntly bypass, part of the "Roads of National Significance" programme that Labour vehemently opposed in opposition for nine years.
Expect Bishop's forthcoming package to mimic but exceed Joyce's approach in giving political backing for an early start to projects the bureaucrats say should wait.
Given his audience and role as Hutt South MP, Bishop's speech confirmed National's support for the full $6.4b Let's Get Wellington Moving package that was originally recommended, rather than the watered-down version created by political interference from the Greens' Julie-Anne Genter.
For political reasons, Bishop is now best not to mention the Wellington investment this side of the election, but his willingness to pour $6.4b into the capital underlines the scale of investment needed in Auckland and elsewhere.
That seems likely to include a multi-modal Auckland Harbour tunnel crossing and a new Kaimai rail tunnel which will boost Port of Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty's productivity.
Bishop is also keenly aware that funding a four-lane expressway and double-tracked rail line from Auckland to Whangārei and Marsden Point, which would allow Northport to progressively expand, would — along with the donations scandal — finally destroy NZ First's dreams of cracking 5 per cent or winning Northland.
From National's perspective, permanently taking NZ First out of Parliament is surely reason enough to fast-track both.
Bishop faces opposition within National for the scale of his ambitions but the automatic naysayers no longer include Goldsmith or Bridges. The bureaucrats' argument that New Zealand should wait to build infrastructure only when or after it is needed and not before has finally been lost across Parliament.
Neither politicians nor the voters who elect them will tolerate any longer being told that the same Wellington bureaucrats and economic methodologies responsible for the current infrastructure shambles have anything to offer to the solution.
The political question will soon turn to which of the major parties do voters trust to competently deliver 12, 20, 50 or 100 billion dollars of new projects. After the Kiwibuild and light-rail fiascos, Bishop and National think they can win that debate hands down.
- As a PR consultant and lobbyist, Matthew Hooton is working for the mayors of the Far North, Whangārei and Kaipara to promote the Northland infrastructure projects mentioned above. These views are his own.