It has been encouraging to witness the change of PM in Australia to the pro-city and Transit using Malcolm Turnbull following significant elections at state level in both Queensland and Victoria going quite dramatically the same way. Now the Liberals have been returned to power in Canada what does this mean for city policy and transportation policy in particular?

Liberal transit policy

It is tempting to feel that there may very well be a significant shift in the zeitgeist in the Anglophone world on these issues, especially including climate change. And I don’t mean on the old blunt left/right polarity, after all Turnbull and Cameron clearly don’t fit when viewed through that lens. Rather I see a different forces at work. The Abbott/Harper backward looking anti-change and fearful world view increasingly seems dated and no longer credible. It looks like no party can convincingly run, red or blue, without real responses to environment, energy, and city infrastructure that aren’t significantly updated from last century’s norms. Welcome to the 21st Century proper, Canada.

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    1. I suspect (hope?) the Nats are coming around to a more node-neutral transport policy.

      I suspect there’s always been people in the party who knew Joyce’s RoNs were not the right approach, but these people’s influence (at the time) was too limited to stop it from happening. Upon being elected in 2008, Joyce was a political super-power and he could do as he pleased. Which he did, in a manner very similar to the worst of Muldoon’s “think big” projects.

      Fast-forward 7 years and Joyce’s ministerial star has faded, as has the likes of Collins. Meanwhile public support for balanced urban transport investment has only grown. Together this lends support to the more progressive elements of National’s caucus, e.g. Bridges and Kaye.

      The Nats won’t change policies overnight, if only to avoid embarrassment and/or to take their core supporters with them on the “journey”. Nonetheless, I’m expecting a gradual shift away from the gung-ho, roads-only transport investment policies that have characterised the last 3 governments. Especially when such a shift suits the political climate. I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, to see them pledging funding for the CRL in the lead-up to the next election to shore up their support in Auckland.

  1. Thanks for the timely post Patrick.

    I’ve been following the Canadian campaign with some interest, and was increasingly surprised by the stark difference in attitudes between Harper and Trudeau. The former was extremely negative and divisive – nowhere was this more apparent than in the ridiculous debate on whether people should be allowed to choose what they wore in citizenship ceremonies and/or the rationale for decriminalizing marijuana.

    When confronted when ridiculous, over-the-top negative “attack ads” from the Conservatives, the Liberal campaign stayed positive. The desire to be positive is evident in the policy on urban transit you have quoted above, which justifies investment in transit so people can spend more time with “loved ones”. It’s a proud and down-to-earth statement of the intended effects of the policy for everyday people. Much better than the technocratic catch-cries underpinning the RoNs, e.g. “reducing congestion”, “enabling freight movements”, etc.

    While Trudueau and Turnbull (and Key for that matter) come from opposite sides of the political centre, they do seem to share a relatively positive/optimistic disposition. I think that’s important; the issues that divide people are often much less significant than those around which people’s collective conscience can be galvanised. I suspect, for example, that most people in New Zealand are concerned by issues of public debt and climate change. We want an economy that maintains or improves standards of living, without trashing the environment.

    By extension, we want the government to run a balanced budget (over the economic cycle), while also taking steps to shift our society and economy to less carbon intensive activities. Both are possible; they are not mutually exclusive outcomes; this is clear from some of the Nordic countries (Sweden in particular). More progress can be made when politicians of different persuasions sit down and work together. That’s one reason why countries in Northern Europe have made sustained socio-economic progress over many decades. And won reason why I hope NZ can evolve to have a moderate/centre party to balance the excesses of Labour and National.

    Personally I am very glad the Liberal won the Canadian election, if only because it increases the chance countries will reach a binding global agreement on climate change at Paris in just a few months’ time. And based on the latest scientific evidence, that may be the last chance there is for future generations. As someone who one day aspires to have kids (and puppies), it’s very important to me that we stop trashing the planet.

    1. I generally agree with this, Stu, and agree that’s where we should be going.

      I’d challenge your assertion that NZ doesn’t have any moderate/centre parties. Based on their macroeconomic records over the last two governments, both Labour and National qualify as quite centrist. They’ve stuck within the consensus of free trade/liberal internationalism, independent central bank, and countercyclical fiscal policy while making incremental policy tweaks. They have also been moderately progressive on social issues.

      However, NZ’s two main political parties have failed on transport and environmental issues. In both of those areas, their policies have come at the expense of economic and environmental efficiency. I do not think history will remember them kindly for their failure to act faster on climate change.

      1. Hmmm …. it’s true that in the last 20 years Labour and National have, under Helen Clark and John Key, progressively played to the centre to secure sufficient votes to govern. And the parties are generally in agreement on major issues.

        However this is a relatively recent historical development compared to the other countries I was referring to, where consensus politics has been the norm for many decades, even going back to the end of WWII. If you go back 20 years in NZ then you have Richardson, 30 years gets brings you to Douglas (“the NZ experiment”), and a few more Muldoon (the “think small” disaster).

        None of these governments are what I would describe as moderate. As a result, considerable political energy was, until recently, expended in un-doing or fixing legacy issues from these governments. Just look at how much debate, legislation, regulation, and litigation was associated with the sake of Telecom in the last 20 years. Such issues have been major topics in NZ’s political discourse, and – in the process – has crowded out debate on many other substantive issues. That’s just one example. Superannuation is another area of disagreement, as is CGT.

        I also think Labour/National occupying the centre is part of the problem. In the countries I was referring to (i.e. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany) the left/right parties don’t *need* to play the centre, because there’s centrist parties who do that :). In Germany, the main centre-right and centre-left parties have even formed a coalition so as to keep the far (fascist) right out of government. I don’t think New Zealand’s political parties are mature enough to entertain such an idea.

        But why not? Why wouldn’t Labour/National form a coalition to keep unstable/single-issue parties out of power?

        Unfortunately, the centre of NZ politics has been dominated in the last 10-20 years by two parties (NZF and UF) who were both peculiar spin-offs from the major parties with relatively narrow policy platforms. I think NZ needs a centre party that earns 10-20% of the votes and which can form a government with either side, or neither.

        1. I guess we have a slightly different view on NZ’s political history. I tend to see it as alternating periods of consensus and rapid, disruptive change in response to external events.

          Muldoon was a good example. Although he was a massive dick who presided over some major social angst, his policies were mainly intended to _reinforce_ the existing political economy, with its tight regulation and heavy state involvement in many industries. Economically, he sat squarely within the post-war consensus. His successors, though, did not – partly because Muldoon had made it apparent that keeping the status quo was too costly. (Of course, headlong change was also costly, a fact that many people do not appreciate.)

          My sense is that we may be better placed to handle the next crisis thanks to the legacy of the last two. The Rogernomics/Ruthanasia era left us with a flexible exchange rate, minimal restrictions on trade, and an independent central bank. All that means that a “shock” to our balance of trade (as happened in the 1930s, 1970s and 1980s) can be handled much more smoothly. The first Labour government, on the other hand, left us with a reasonably good social safety net, which minimises the human cost of recessions.

          But time will tell…

      2. You can only call them centrist because the political “window” – Overton’s Window – i.e. what is regarded as “normal” has been shifted so far right in the past 30 years.

        I don’t think anybody would have called National’s policies “centrist” in say 1975.

  2. This highlights how the most important transport decisions are determined by the whim of the politician in charge. Of course it’s all dressed up in impressive reports and Economic Evaluation studies to pretend that there is no political bias involved.

      1. Steven Joyce was not elected. He came in on the party list and was propelled to a top spot with no direct voter input.

  3. I live in Canada at the moment. The Conservatives here are just like the Conservatives in NZ are/were, except they still manage to get 30% of the vote.
    Liberals are some kind of crazy blend of National & Labour. NDP are the left-wing elements of Labour.
    I would expect similar results in NZ if we replaced our parties with the Canadian ones (probably fewer votes for the Conservatives though; Colin wouldn’t have survived 10 years in power).

  4. Personally, I don’t want a government that pre-determines the technical solutions to functional problems.

    I want a government that determines desired outcomes and derives from these potential options and then chooses the best.

    Being “pro-road” or “pro-transit” just means you have already restricted the potential solution spectrum, and is poor governing/poor policymaking.

    Whatever works, works.

    1. But two peoples (or two parties) definitions of what works can be massively different – without either needing to fudge numbers at all, or being dishonest. The difference is in that you VALUE.

      If you exclude pollution & noise and many health impacts from the calculation, private cars “work” a lot better than transit than if you do include (some allowance) for these effects.

      If you value off-peak “freedom” to drive – which at those times is unquestionably more flexible than buses and trains – higher than in a different value set that concentrates more on making sure everyday peak people traffic flows well, cars again “work” better.

      If you value better resilience to fossil fuel prices, transit – especially rail – “works” much better. And so on. It’s all about what you include/exclude and what values (often in monetary cost-benefit calculations) you put on things.

      So your argument about pre-determination is, in my view, false. What we value is very much a political decision, not (just) a “what works or what doesn’t”. And those decisions should properly be made at the polls, and by the politicians elected there. So yep, pre-determination is totally fine. Voters knew what they were getting.

      1. Good points Max. I agree.

        That said, I think that while it’s appropriate for politicians to identify a *strategic direction* for transport investment, I don’t think they should have the thumb on the scales when it comes to project selection. So for example, I’m fine with politicians saying things like, “It’s important to get our cities moving so we’re committing to spending 50% of our capital budget on the best available public transport projects.” But I’m a bit more leery when they start saying “We want to build megaprojects X, Y, and Z.”

        I thought that the urban cycleways fund got the balance between political direction and technical input in project selection about right, while most of the government’s motorway announcements got it wrong. However, I can also understand how the political dynamic pushes people in the direction of proposing particular projects. People do prefer specificity…

        1. No no no no!
          You don’t start with “we’re spending 50% of our capital budget…”
          First, why do you have a capital budget?
          How much do you want to move the cities by? Over what time frame?
          “We want to reduce average transit times by 10% by 2025”
          *that* is a proper starting point.

          1. Peter and Max nail it. As for his Lordship, your most recent comment conflates the political (policy) with implementation (projects). Politicians do not relate to such questions as “how much do we move our cities.” That is the province of the technical people who have done the analysis that you (rightly) demand. Then they make their best case for their recommendations and politicians decide if it fits with policy and, equally important, their world view. (Nobody leaves their world view at the door.)

            It can be a sensible policy statement to say that 50% of your capital budget will be spent on transit if you know that for the past x years it has averaged y%. 50% may sound/be somewhat arbitrary but as a policy guide with the intention of correcting for past policies, it’s not a bad place to start. Naturally it has to have practical results in line with the promises attached to it. That’s where the unelected technicians come in. Politicians are elected for their political skills, not professional expertise. And believe me, as an unelected technician I can assure you that we don’t “run” *anything*!

    1. Trudeau has pledged to dump it too; interesting to see if he will, being such a clear beneficiary of such a system. Would make a huge difference, a strong Canadian Green Party would be a great thing for North American politics for example. Would it enable the revival of the French secessionist movement too?

      1. Yes but not sure I agree that a strong Green party helps. My natural inclination is to vote Labour but the Green threat makes National look good on election day. I am sure I am not the only one.

        1. What evidence do you have for this threat? I have only seen positive influence from the Green Party on policy on both Clark’s and Key’s governments. Project Dart would not have happened without the Greens, nor would have the insulation programme. And given that they will always only be part of any government all the Joycean fear mongering and exaggeration of ‘wackiness’ is simply that; fear-mongering and exaggeration.

          The more interesting question now is which of the major parties will they work better with. I am generally sceptical of the ‘blue-green’ idea as it is great in theory but hard to see in practice. But perhaps the next generation of Nats, Bridges and Kaye, say, may be more able to make it work? And is Lab under Little capable of going green enough? Or would you rather have the nostgists of NZF propping up a gov? Aren’t they just old school change-o-phobes ultimately?

          1. Well maybe their results to date. The Greens appeal to 1 in 10 people but seem to repel 9 out of 10. So far no government has managed to get elected with the Greens as a full partner. Helen Clark kept them at arms length suing them as a minority government when she had to but simply isolating them when she was able. The pity is the Greens social agenda is a really good one that appeals to me, it is just all that green stuff that makes people think they care more for polar bears than they do for jobs and income and cheap energy and things we really want.

          2. One in ten is horribly minor? Then how do you describe the lunatic fringe of ACT? below 1:100.

            And a concern for species extinction is such a threat to your way of life that it frightens you away from a Party that you otherwise agree with? Sir doth protestest too much.

          3. No my point is I care about my own income, other people’s income or poverty and whether people can afford to heat their home or get around. I don’t care very much about global warming or any of the other so called green issues. I care a little but not enough that I would substitute much of anyone’s income. I know it is completely irrational but I would rather burn coal than ever allow nuclear energy to be used here. Greens do a good job in opposition but I am quite happy for them to stay there and carry on doing a good job in opposition.

          4. For what it’s worth, NZ’s energy and environmental challenges are significantly different than the ones faced by other countries. Thermal power plants are in decline at the moment due to their comparatively high costs and slowly-growing electricity demand at a national level, not environmental legislation. Otahuhu, Southdown and Huntly are being put out of business by geothermal and wind, not the Greens.

            Furthermore, if you care about the cost of energy, you definitely shouldn’t be voting for National – their decision to subsidise the Bluff aluminium smelter to stay in operation means that electricity generated at Manapouri isn’t going to be diverted north to lower electricity bills for consumers. Of course, there’s a trade-off between employment, economic efficiency, and energy costs there. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the positive employment effects of lowering electricity costs across the board would outweigh the negative effects of losing smelter jobs in Bluff.

          5. Yes I am not sure they did that to protect jobs as much as to soak up the power supply to protect dividends to their core voters who own power company shares. You can always trust National to look after their own. At the moment you cant give coal away but one day energy prices will rise and we will notice that New Zealand is the Saudi Arabia of coal. When that happens we will have a simple choice- burn it so we can be better off but the world’s climate will not or be poorer and ‘do our bit’ for the world. It will be interesting.

          6. I like many of the Green’s transport, environmental, social and economic policies. I dislike their social policies however. I knew (or know) quite a few of their politicians and party members, so having them in power doesn’t appeal to me.

      2. Trudeau is going to dump FPTP? In favour of what system? If this is true, perhaps I don’t despise him for voting for Canada’s PATRIOT Act, C-51, after all. (Québec souverainiste here who holds her nose and votes NDP for the Commons.)

  5. Can’t reply to SteveNZ’s comments above, but he’s wrong (flipped around)

    The technical question is HOW we will hit the 10% outcome goal, and that’s the province of the technicians

    The policy question is WHAT we want, and WHAT is that 10% improvement

    Politician: “I want a 20% drop in crime”
    Cops: “OK, we will work out how we do it.”

    Politician: “I want more stations here, here, and here.”
    Cops: “OK, we will work out the effect that will have.”

    The argument about the capital projects shows just how wrong you are. You shouldn’t spend a cent on *anything* until you have clearly identified the goals. So you shouldn’t even look at the previous year’s budget – you should look at what you want to achieve, cost it, work out if its feasible, rinse, repeat.

    I was once like you – sitting in an office in Canberra asking a senior Aussie civil servant what the right level of expenditure on X was (X anonymised for my own safety). He responded “that’s the wrong question. Work out what you want, then work out what that costs.”

    Seems like a lot of you are sticking to a view of policy/bureaucracy that predates the 1980s, the “steering vs. rowing” debate, all the arguments about principal-agent theory and rent-seeking behaviour etc.

    I’ll sum it up this way “What you want is a skinned cat”

    1. In principle, I agree with you. However, I think that strategic allocation of funds might be more appropriate *in practice* for several reasons.

      The first is that politicians may have a poor idea of what outcomes are possible in practice. For example, saying “we’re going to speed up traffic by 10%” sounds great but it’s probably not achievable without spending way too much money.

      The second, related problem is that high-level outcomes change very slowly. By the time the evaluation date comes due, the politicians that promised those outcomes have usually left office. So they’re unlikely to actually “bind” decision makers to do anything concrete.

      The third problem is that a totally outcome-based, method-agnostic approach would create quite a bit of anarchy in budgeting and project evaluation processes processes. It would create a situation where (for example) road maintenance funds were competing with PT infrastructure funds, with the result that you wouldn’t know whether it would be possible to maintain roads over the next five years.

      If one assumed that all the actors had perfect information and infinite time horizons, your proposal would make sense. But economists usually get criticised for making those kinds of assumptions, so I won’t.

      1. You’d have to bucket to themes – yes. It would be bounded rather than perfect rationality. So you still bucket to defence, police, transport etc, but as far as possible you don’t bucket below that. Or you bucket to output classes (which we currently do, but do poorly)

        Even if you didn’t truly link to long-term outcomes, even linking to medium-term outputs (which can be measured during the lifetime of a politician) is better than input-based thinking.
        And outputs are largely *method agnostic* – only at the process/input level do we really start getting into technical solutions.
        So a politician could say “I want 500 more police patrol hours per week” or “I want 500 more hip operations” and still not overly constrain the technical solutions. What we need is a good method-independent output for transport – something that allows comparison of all modes – maybe “people per hour” or something, some sort of throughputy-outputty measure. Cos then you can say “our network needs to move 5000 people 10km at an avg speed >50kmh” and then train, bus, bike, and car can all compete and you FUND THE WINNER.

        You work for AC, Peter. When was the last time AC actually sat down and asked…
        – “What processing time do we want for resource consents? Can we do it faster than 20 statutory days? How much would it cost? Should we ask people if they want it?”
        – “How many noise complaints is reasonable? Can we reduce them through quicker responses to attacks? Beach patrols? How much would it cost?”

        Or does it actually say…
        – “What was RC’s budget last year? What’s the rates increase? What does that give us to spend?”

        None of this is new, PPBS was introduced by the Yanks in the ’60s and fell over due to a lack of computing power, not an inherent conceptual flaw.

        1. I don’t work for Auckland Council, so I don’t have an answer to those specific questions. I understand that most government departments and local government organisations have quantitative KPIs that they track and report.

          1. And I can guarantee from decades of experience that the only quantitative measures linked to budgets are the budgets themselves.

            Targets don’t drive budgets. Last year +/-

            Input based thinking…

          2. It’s just a different problem formulation.

            One set is we have this much budget and what to achieve these goals at this level of benefit each; what’s the best that we can do.

            The other approach is that we want to achieve these aims spending as little money as possible; how much will it cost.

            The first approach is obviously a far more sensible question for final allocation of funds as the funds truly are limited, the second question is useful because it can tell you the costs to achieve each aim and give you the cost to improve congestion losses by some amount at some amount of congestion loss. These problems are in operations research known as the ‘prime’ and the ‘dual’ and anyone experienced in OR will ell you that a real world meaningful answer is better than an optimum solution.

  6. Sailor Boy – why do you have any budget at all if you haven’t set goals?

    Organisations don’t exist to spend money. Budgets should be zero-based. As soon as you say “we have this much budget” you are engaging in irrational decision-making.

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