So, John Key announced he was resigning as Prime Minister yesterday. I’m sure that over the coming days and weeks there will probably be a nauseating amount of coverage about him, his decision and whoever his replacement ends up being. Below are a few thoughts on the role Key has played in the discussion of urban transport in Auckland
Perhaps Key’s biggest influence on urban issues has been in relation to the City Rail Link. If you cast your mind back, in 2008 he first appointed Stephen Joyce as Minister of Transport and then in 2011 he appointed Gerry Brownlee. Both men, and obviously with the backing of Cabinet, were extremely critical of the project, primarily by appearing to completely misunderstand and misrepresent its purpose and the impact it would have. For example, Joyce once said of the project “that is not smart transport; that is pouring money down a hole”, while Brownlee was perhaps even more opposed, at one point in late 2012 saying “I take big issue with the suggestion that the city rail link is useful or popular”. Even in May 2013 Brownlee was downplaying the project and suggesting it was unimportant.
But everything changed just a month later in June 2013 when Key overrode his ministers and announced for the first time that the government would support the project – albeit not till 2020 and with uncertainty around the exact level of funding from the government. At the beginning of this year Key again weighed in on decisions about the project by announcing the government would support the project starting sooner than 2020. In both cases the business community had a strong part to play in changing the government’s position.
Even though it took a lot longer than hoped, I suspect we could still be hoping for the project now if the likes of Joyce or Brownlee were in charge.
The second big transport area Key has played a important role has been with cycling. He was instrumental in creating the Urban Cycleway Fund (UCF), which has resulted in unprecedented levels of spending on cycling after decades of almost no investment in bike infrastructure.
But it wasn’t just his support for the CRL and cycling projects that was positive, he turned up to a lot of transport events, from cycleway celebrations, to business lunches and even to celebrate the arrival of the final electric train, and speaking about urban transport incredibly well, often making comments that are not too dissimilar to what you might find here on the blog. As one example, here’s one part of what he said at the EMU celebration last year.
When it comes to public transport, there’s nothing unique about New Zealanders or Aucklanders. You know this sort of thing that’s put out there that the average Aucklander isn’t going to get on an electric train or bus or whatever. It’s not true because those very same Aucklanders when they go to London and live there for the big two years on the OE the first thing they do is get on the tube. So what’s the difference, well the answer is sheer convenience and reliability and in the end people will get on trains alright provided they turn up when they want them, they’re there and working, and they’re clean and tidy, and that’s exactly what you’ve got going on here.
He may not have been perfect but at least he seemed to understand urban transport issues when he wanted to, although perhaps it’s just the mark of a good politician to say the right things to the right audience.
It’s also worth noting that his government is currently trying to stop Light Rail from being an option on Dominion Rd with a remarkably similar approach/feel to it as the opposition to the CRL prior to 2013.
With Key going, of course now focus is going to shift to who the next leader will be, and the likely Cabinet lineup. Here are a few things to think about.
- At this early stage, Bill English is widely tipped to become the new leader. As I understand it, he’s been quite important behind the scenes in understanding the urban economy argument which has helped in getting the government to support some of the investment mentioned above as well as things like the Unitary Plan. If he becomes the PM a lot of people are picking Stephen Joyce to be the next finance minister. Given his stances he’s taken in the past on many of the issues we advocate for I can’t see this being a good thing.
- With a new leader, and election a year away, it’s highly likely we’ll also see a cabinet reshuffle. I actually think Simon Bridges has done a relatively good job in the role over the last few years and I’m not sure if there is a better person for the job within the government at the moment, especially at that Cabinet level.
- There always seems to be a resentment towards Auckland from the rest of the country as to how much is spent here by the Government. Across all areas combined, Auckland typically gets a smaller share of government spending than its share of population or GDP. Key was possibly one of Auckland’s biggest allies in the government so with his departure does it mean we could see the National Party shift focus and spending away from Auckland in a ‘play for the regions’?
- On some more specific questions,
- Will the government still share the costs of the CRL 50:50?
- Will we see a repeat of the Urban Cycleway Fund after the next election?
- Will we see light rail down Dominion Rd?
What are your thoughts on John Key’s resignation? (as they relate to transport and urban issues).