On March 28 the (normally safe) National-held electorate of Northland heads for a bye-election. The outcome of the bye-election will be fascinating for several reasons.

The first reason is that it’s politically important. If Winston Peters wins then it will be more difficult for National to pass controversial legislation, because they will need the votes of not just one but two support parties.

Legislation like the Sky City casino-for-convention-centre deal and RMA reforms suddenly become pawns in a three-way game of arbitrage between parties with somewhat different support bases and philosophies. Amusingly, National could end up leading a government not too dissimilar to what they warned the opposition would have been like, had the latter prevailed at the last election.

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The second reason the bye-election is so interesting is that transport has, somewhat unexpectedly, become a major campaign issue.

Early in the campaign, the Minister of Transport (Simon Bridges) suddenly found $69 million in previously stretched transport budgets for two-laning a number of bridges in Northland. This funding announcement was apparently made without any information or advice being sought, or received, from transport officials. This is an announcement that Winston himself would be proud of, indeed he’s pulled similar stunts in the past.

The reality for National, however, is that few people seem to have been impressed by the transport funding announcement. Instead, it has received considerable attention for delving so blatantly into pork-barrel politics.

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Questions have also been raised about the effectiveness of the spend. For many of the locals interviewed by Campbell Live, two-waying bridges seem to be far from the top of the priorities list.

National have also apparently linked funding for the Puhoi-Wellsford highway to the outcome of the bye-election. Amazing how an apparently essential piece of transport infrastructure can so suddenly becomes not so important when there is a bye-election.

I’ve personally found it interesting watching National’s transport pork-barrel approach in Northland, especially in light of recent political happenings in Australia, where I am currently based.

In Victoria, Dennis Nathpine’s Liberal Government tied their political fortunes to the eye-wateringly expensive $18 billion “East-West Link”. It was a bad pick, with polls showing the East-West link had levels of support that were half of comparable metro rail projects. Napthine was subsequently kicked out of office.

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Meanwhile, in Queensland, Campbell-Newman built a reputation for delivering large, expensive, and largely unnecessary motorway tunnels. His Government’s promises of more roading pork were spectacularly dismissed after only one term in office after a 12% swing back to Labour.

And at the Federal level Tony Abbott’s unwillingness to fund passenger transport improvements in Australia’s rapidly growing cities is receiving growing criticism. This is in stark contrast to the former (and possible future) Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, who supports passenger transport.

As an economist, I think there’s a key message for National in all of these events. It’s not just that roading pork hasn’t been sufficient to save political bacon, but also that there is often a large gap between stated and revealed preferences.

Why is this important? Well, I suspect what all of these conservative parties have done, including National, is held focus groups where they’ve asked people whether they support more investment in roads. In response, many of these people have said “yes”. Something like these guys.

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The problem with stated preference surveys is the trade-offs are usually not made explicit. More specifically, when you invest more in roads, you often find that you don’t get much bang for your buck.

So while people say they want more investment in roads, after a couple of years of fluffing about with largely ineffective road investments, they suddenly realise that they’re not actually much better off. Political strategies based on stated preferences may therefore work in the short run, but they are likely to run out of gas in the long run.

The lesson for National in all this, I think, is that they increasingly run the risk that people will catch onto the fact that their transport pork is failing to return much value. Every new road that opens which fails to meet forecasts, every new business case that is shown to be baloney, eventually creates the case for your opponents to shred your credibility. It won’t happen overnight, but it probably will happen.

This is especially true when you’re foolish enough to do what National have done, i.e. hang your dirty transport laundry out to dry in the blazing heat of a Northland bye-election.

This seems to be a timely and early lesson for Simon Bridges: Emulating the pork-barrel approach employed by Joyce and Brownlee will not necessarily bring you enduring political success. Just ask Nathpine, Campbell-Newman, and Abbott if you want to see the proof in that political pudding.

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40 comments

  1. *** This comment has been edited for violating user guidelines: http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/about/user-guidelines/

    Is it possible to be more anti roading? I think the danger for the author is that people will catch on to how obsessed he is with PT and so anti roading that he comes across as bordering on irrationality. The north needs roads and decent bridges and for you to say otherwise is arrogance. The examples espoused to ‘prove’ your points bear little relevance to the north. Time to leave Auckland and go take a look. Watch out for the heretic brigade crucifying me…it’ll come.

    Hi Ricardo:
    1) This post is not anti-roading, it’s anti transport policy being used for political purposes.
    2) Calling someone arrogant, obsessed, and irrational is a very effective way to get blocked from the blog. Play the ball not the man please.
    3) I previously lived and worked in Northland as an engineering student and I continue to visit Northland regularly.

      1. The bridges aren’t needed, however neither candidate has suggested anything that Northland actually needs, i.e. better maintenance of roads, more rumble strips, medians and passing lanes and also ensuring that essential services don’t close.

        1. Exactly Richard, however this government thinks that building a road in Auckland is a better spend for Northland than doing this vital work.

        2. The current government has actively pushed funding from local road maintenance into building highways. Joyce is your culprit.

          I bet there are plenty of roads in Northland whose prompt maintenance would bring a better return on investment for locals than some scattered bridges or the duplicate holiday highway to the south.

    1. Its all agreed that Northland needs more sealed roads – *in Northland* and not just some 2-way bridges.

      Unfortunately the Puhoi to Wellsford road is the biggest pork barrel imaginable and it doesn’t actually, you, know, get to Northland.
      Nope, it stops short of the boundary with Northland and Auckland. So the biggest road for Northland doesn’t go there, or is not being built there.

      Yet it promises to gobble up a billion (yes a billion) or more of roading funds for a road that once built (and tolled) doesn’t save its users more than 2 minutes off the current journey time.
      The fuel savings from using won’t even pay for the toll. So why would you use it?

      And the northern part – the “Warkworth to Wellsford” part, is not even able to be constructed no matter how much money you throw at it because the land it goes through is about the worst possible geologically in NZ for a motorway as acknowledged by NZTA.

      Yes, there are a lot of roads that Northland could use, and a lot could do with being sealed, as could the rest of the country, but it will never happen with the way those funds are currently being spent thats for sure.

      And thats not TransportBlogs fault (or the MSM) for pointing these inconvenient truths out.

    2. Northland definitely needs investment in roading. The problem is that the National party keeps investing in roads that Northland doesn’t need, while not doing much about some of the actual roading problems in the region. For example: all those roads that got flooded out last year, cutting off Northland from the rest of the country? They probably need some funds. Instead National is throwing money at one way lane bridges instead. The Puhoi to Wellsford is promised as the great saviour of the Northland economy, except the only part thats actually planned stops at Warkworth, and NZTA currently have no information on where the part thats close to Northland might go, or how much it will cost. The government’s own freight survey showed that Northland – Auckland freight traffic is small pretty compared to the volume of freight traffic that never leaves Northland. Where is all that intra-Northland freight traffic going? The nearest port. If National was serious about spending the transport budget effectively to improve Northland’s economy they’d be look at improving the roads to get trucks to Northport.

      1. Yes this is exactly right. Northland almost certainly would benefit from increased government investment. Almost certainly benefit from investment in its transport asset base. And almost certainly benefit from that investment being in improving its poor quality roads.

        However it is also almost certain that Northland will benefit very little from a massive spend on a duplicate road in the Auckland region. If this sum was spent actually on improving roads through out Northland it is highly likely that the benefit would be significantly greater. But we will never know because no such analysis was ever undertaken. This is a project chosen at the political level and then sold on the basis that it is all about an adjacent province.

        It is very regrettable how much the current government has politicised the use of the NLTF. And the reason is simple; it is spending that is off the balance sheet of the general gov accounts. Pork without a visible hit to the surplus target.

    3. We have been advocating for increased road maintenance spend since the days of the RTA and NRB now the NZTA for both increased maintenance and development by carrying out the road safety recommendations of NZTA and the additional passing lanes etc all the way to the far north. Not just the holiday highways south of Whangarei. Ever since the removal of the Subsidization of the Kaitaia Airport in the late 80’s the far north has became increasingly isolated.

      Logging truck increases since 1987 and the number of increased vehicle size and mass has greatly increased the burden on the local council road maintenance with a minimal increase in budget to account for the greatly increased wear and tear on these roads. The attrition rate for Northalnd bridges does not seem to ahve been a consideration for Central Government since the passing of those law changes. The locals bear the brunt of this lack of care and the holiday makers complain and seem to get grading done for their summer holidays but the rest of the year the locals suffer the corrugations. Maybe the politicians only go north in January thru March.

      With the closure of the hospital in Kaitaia in the early 90’s the folks in the far north have become more isolated with the maintenance of the Brynderwin Hills roads becoming critical. the availability of many people to attend their health requirements is becoming ever more fragile. These people have no use for the holiday highway but a real need for good access to base hospital Whangerei. if the government were to again encourage air NZ to run a low cost air service to Whangarie then maybe the Kaitaia hospital closure would be bearable especially if ti were subsidized but until that time the far north roads don’t just need attention for the holiday periods but for the year round benefit of the local population and business.

    4. Ricardo, if you google searched the writer of this piece, you will find that he is a proud green party supporter. Not that there is anything wrong about that

      Hi Richard, yes I support some Green Party policies, especially on transport. I also support some policy positions held by National (e.g. National cycleway and subsidies for doctors visits), Labour (e.g. CGT), and NZ First (e.g. rail investment). Like Ricardo above, I’d suggest you play the ball not the man.

    5. “so that it can still GOVERN:. No -the important thing is that the democratic will of the people as expressed through the ballot box is reflected in the governance of the country.

  2. You know love or hate Winston Peters, he does speak to the truth at times (between the show tricks and other gimmicks he’s fond of).

    Today he was on the radio talking about the need to upgrade Northland Port to handle more general cargo (I read that as cars not containers) and not just logs as it does now to help reduce the reclamation of the Waitemata Harbour POAL are in process of doing. And also to fix up the rail link to Auckland.
    He said that all 3 ports (Northland, Auckland and Tauranga) need to present a “United Front” to the Shipping agencies, so that instead of them being able to play one of against the other they can’t cheery pick.
    Peters said that the shippers will be told to deal with the 3 ports as a single body and he promised a law change to make it allowable.

    So at least we may get some sort of “Upper north island port strategy” out of the by-election.

    Minister Bridges also needs a lesson in “building bridges” – and not just the physical kind, but with bridges to his officials, other parties and communities.

    1. As an Aucklander who wants more waterfront space for public use and not the entire Waitemata turned into a wharf, I heartily endorse Northland having a deep-water port and a first-class rail link; and the Upper NI Ports collaborating so that competition doesn’t lead to overinvestment which ruins natural resources like our harbour.

    2. A few months ago I read a report about container traffic into NZ (sorry don’t have the link, might have been linked from here). One of the take-awyas I got was that the major container shipping companies really want to consulate to one port in the North Island and one in the South.

      The current situation with Tauranga and Auckland is tolerable but no way are they going to split traffic between 3 ports. It is not going to be a case of keeping Auckland at roughly the current level and growing Northland.

      The choices are:

      (a) Grow Auckland port
      (b) Move most Auckland traffic to Tauranga
      (c) Most most Auckland traffic to Northland

      All are legitimate but people shouldn’t pretend they are just getting rid of a carpark when they limit Auckland port expansion.

      I do find it amusing though that people here who are fighting the wharf expansion are effectively supporting Northland port and the “Holiday Highway” to handle traffic to it 🙂

      1. “I do find it amusing though that people here who are fighting the wharf expansion are effectively supporting Northland port and the “Holiday Highway” to handle traffic to it :)”
        I think you’ll find that lots of us opposed to POAL expansion plans are well aware of that and do support a Northland port.
        However, most folks hereabouts would likely support rail over road.

      2. I recall reading a plan to bring containers into one port and out from another – and they were Marsdan and Tauranga. Rail to Northland’s port is an essential part of that picture.

        Has there been a recent cost-benefit analysis of Auckland maintaining a port (and more narrowly, a container port)?

    1. SHUT UP COMMUNIST 😉

      Seriously, I agree, but imagine what the newspapers / Whale Oil / Stephen Joyce would to do any party which proposed that.

  3. It’s nice to have some analysis of National’s transport policies but a little balance wouldn’t go astray.

    The Taxpayer Union found that National’s promises amounted to around $35 per taxpayer. New Zealand First’s poilices on the other hand amounted to around $165 per taxpayer! Why, because Winston wants to build a train line to the Port in Whangarei. When contacted the CEO of the Port stated they wouldn’t use the railway, didn’t want the railway and had never even been spoken to about the railway! Now that’s Pork Barrel Politics my friends!

    1. We did have a train line to Whangarei, one is still needed let’s go for it. Also it did go further north and the road beds are still there. It may not be needed right now however it would free up the roads a bit and allow the politicians better access to their holiday homes.

    2. Agreed. If Winston wins the by-election, he wouldn’t be able to built what he promised as he is in opposition. I would say that Winston throws even more pork than Osborne as the train line would be significantly slower than SH1 and the Port doesn’t even want to use the rail line! By the way, if Winnie wins, he will bring in an MP from Invercargill and he admitted that he wouldn’t spend much time up there.

    3. “The Taxpayer Union” (sic); You mean Jordan Williams and a few mates?
      For those who are not aware of Jordan Williams, he is a lawyer working in Wellington.
      He is also a right wing commentator/activist; anti-MMP campaigner; and party apparatchik for National and ACT. He was closely involved in the Brash coup against ACT-leader Rodney Hide in 2011.

      Williams is also a known associate of rightwing blogger and National Party worker, David Farrar; rightwing activist/campaigner Simon Lusk; and convicted criminal (and occassional blogger), Cameron Slater.
      Self appointed bunch of chancers.

    4. If Dollars-per-taxpayer is the measure of a wasteful spend, has The Real Matthew considered the $-per-taxpayer figure for the entire RoNS programme?

      Cost of RoNS programme (conservative) = $11,000,000,000 http://nzta.govt.nz/projects/te-rapa/docs/info-posters-roads-of-national-significance.pdf
      No of Taxpayers (2013) = 3,375,000 http://www.treasury.govt.nz/budget/2013/taxpayers/02.htm

      Cost per taxpayer of RoNS nationally = $3,259.25

      I wonder how many individuals from Kaitaia to Bluff, if told that this sum was to be extracted from their own resources to pay for seven poorly-justified duplicate highways, would agree that it was a high-priority spend for them?

      1. Our highway network is hopelessly under-developed.

        The addition of the Hamilton bypass is a great example of the huge improvements that can be made via investing in roading. That road cuts 15-20 minutes off Auckland-Hamilton drive time. The Taupo bypass is another excellent example. On a bad day, going through Taupo could previously add 30-45 minutes drive time on journeys.

        If we had a proper highway network Auckland-Wellington should take 6 to 6 1/2 hours. It’s past time that we invested in our highway network to ensure faster and safer travel.

        I do agree however that not all of these projects should be put ahead of CRL funding.

        1. “Our highway network is hopelessly under-developed.”

          Compared to? Said by? Based on?

          “The addition of the Hamilton bypass is a great example of the huge improvements that can be made via investing in roading. That road cuts 15-20 minutes off Auckland-Hamilton drive time”

          While improvements to the road to Hamilton are great and make a lot of sense, I’m not sure how a ‘bypass’ of a town can improve travel time to a town? Can you explain?

          “If we had a proper highway network Auckland-Wellington should take 6 to 6 1/2 hours. It’s past time that we invested in our highway network to ensure faster and safer travel.”

          That would cost in the tens of billions. To save an hour? Surely if travel time is important you would fly? How many vehicles would this route serve in total and would this be the best spend of the available money?

        2. “On a bad day, going through Taupo could previously add 30-45 minutes drive time on journeys.”

          The Taupo bypass is 15.3km long (roundabout at Wairakei to roundabout at Airport). That’s 10mins on a normal day. Via the Taupo town centre, it’s 15.5km, 16mins on a normal day. So 6mins different.

          No way you can extend that an additional 24-39 minutes on a ‘bad’ day.

  4. I’m pretty sure East West link is expected to be between $16-18 billion not $8 billion! If it was $8 billion I’d definitely want to get it built.

  5. That Melbourne tunnel junction shows the sort of thing that will be in store for Northcote Point and St Mary’s Bay if we built a harbour tunnel. I think a lot of people assume because it’s a tunnel it will be invisible, but the junctions sure aren’t.

    1. You mean it would be like “Waterview” interchange with the WRR is going to be, and it will also give its users, a water view as well?

  6. As someone who grew up In Whangarei and still has family there I have seen large improvements in SH1 from Auckland to Whangarei. In 1984 the motorway ended at Tristam Ave and you went onto Wairau Road to get to Whangarei. Has any of the improvements in this time been accompanied by jumps in Northlands economy?

    About 5 km south of Wellsford are two State Highways to Auckland, one train line, overhead is a flight path, and the Kaipara Harbour and the East Coast can be used for shipping. Oh and also there is a power line and a petroleum pipeline. Basically no people live here, especially compared to city motorways and large town bypasses. So essentially you have a major transportation corridor through a sparsely populated area.

    In reply to The Real Matthew’s comment, “Our highway network is hopelessly under-developed.”, I would be surprised if, per person, we had less developed roads than England. To the North of Lincoln, population 100,000+, the road is two lane (one each way). We seem to have less than other countries because there are less of us!

    There is support for road projects in this blog site. Look up “Operation Lifesaver” for suggested multi million dollar spend to make the road from Auckland CBD to Whangarei safer in this decade rather than in a decade in the future.

    1. Yep, Operation Lifesaver can do the same task as the Holiday Highway for much less dosh. The real beneficiaries of the HH aren’t Whangarei and the Far North, but rather certain moguls in trucking and construction. And if it’s a PPP, you can add private equity moguls into the mix.

  7. Given Winston has won, does this mean Puhoi motoway is off. What a shame all that money won’t be wasted.

    One of the linked news articles said:
    “If the people of Northland want the Puhoi to Wellsford motorway extension, which is vital to open up Northland to our biggest market . . . if we want that, there’s only one choice, and that’s to vote for me,” Osborne said. If he lost the by-election there was a “real risk” the road might not go ahead.

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