Wood is proving adept at steering major initiatives through Cabinet – but winning public approval for them will be more challenging

Transport Minister  Michael Wood  is  winning  a  reputation  for  his  bold political  initiatives. They  include, for  example,  the  announcement  of a second Auckland  harbour  bridge crossing  (but  only  for  cyclists and walkers, costing an estimated $780m).

Then came  a  “feebate”  scheme  to  hasten  the  transition  to electric  vehicles.

And earlier  there  had  been  a  move to “review”  the  Light  Rail project  in  Auckland, the  commitment  to which  had   proved a  political disaster  for Wood’s  predecessor, Phil  Twyford.

Wood  may  regard  himself  as  the  chosen  one,  enjoying  the  favours  of  his  political  seniors.  Certainly  he  appears to  have a gift  for  steering  his  initiatives  through Cabinet.

But to what effect for the political fortunes of the government?

The harbour  bridge for strollers and cyclists  drew a  spectacular  response,  coming  as it did when  Prime  Minister Jacinda  Ardern was  pointing  out  the government  was “strapped  for  cash” and  could  not meet  the  nurses’ demands  for a higher  wage rise  than the 1.38%  offered  by their  state  employers.

The  bridge  was  labelled  a  “vacuous  indulgence”,  or,  as political  commentator Jane  Clifton  put it, “an incendiary plan for  a car-free second  harbour crossing, a  project so boutique in its  appeal  as  to be practically elitist”.

Clearly,  with  praise  like  that, Wood  is  putting  a  stamp  on  his career  and  those   who  had  seen  him as a  rising  star  when  he entered Parliament  in  2016  as  a  36-year-old will  be  congratulating  themselves.

The  announcement   on  the  new  harbour  crossing  coincided  with  the  government’s revision  to its $6.8bn upgrade programme of  road  projects.  Six of the 32 projects included in the programme  won’t go ahead as initially planned.

New cost estimates for all the promises made in January 2020 are expected to result in the cost of the initial programme almost doubling to $12.8bn.

The now-scrapped Mill Road upgrade  in  South  Auckland, for example, was priced at $1.85bn last year, but is now expected to cost $3.5bn.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson attributed the cost blowout to increased construction costs globally due to COVID-19.  He has allocated an additional $1.9bn towards the programme.

So  why  did  Wood  rate  the  harbour crossing for cyclists  and  walkers  ahead  of  vital links  like Mill Road?

Here’s  one editorial opinion  (from  the  “Listener”):

“This project is  not only  risibily far  from  being a  transport  priority,  but is  likely  to be  seen  as a cynical political move  to  shore votes in privileged Auckland electorates”.

No  harm  in  that,  you  say?

Of  course    not, if the  party  is  aiming to  win more  votes  in  those  pluty electorates.

As  the “Listener”  sees  it,

“ … the  government  is  confident  of  its voter ‘red wall’  in working  class  suburbs,  and,  with  the National  Party in further disarray, seems  out to  cement its popularity with the well-heeled, green-conscious  voters of  inner-Auckland — even though the  concrete and steel  required for  the  bridge are among  the  least environmentally sustainable   materials  available and, given Covid-wrought shortages, likely  to  be  increasingly  expensive.  Even  as a  vanity  project  for the government’s  global  green credentials, this  fails”.

So  how  was  the  plan for buying new electric vehicles, providing discounts up to $8695,   received?

Again   the  government  message  initially  got  the  headlines  it  sought,  particularly  when Ardern joined  the  chorus.

Many of the country’s most popular imported low-emission cars will likely either attract a discount or no fee under this initiative,  she  said.

From July, drivers will be able to get a rebate for new and used imported electric vehicles. A brand-new EV will  gain  a maximum rebate  of $8695 while a used one could receive up to $3450.

Plug-in hybrids are eligible for smaller rebates.

But from next year, those buying   what some  disparage as “gas guzzlers” will need  to pay additional fees.  A Toyota Hilux or  Ford  Ranger,  which  many farmers  or  tradesmen  regard  as essential,  will cost $2900 more, with fees rising as much as $5175.

Under the rebate scheme, the imported cars need to be priced at less than $80,000 and have at least a three-star safety rating.

The scheme is said  to  be  an incentive to make low and no-emission cars more accessible to drivers. Because it is focused on imported cars, the scheme does not affect the existing second-hand market.

Opposition   parties  found  plenty of  issues  to  target over  the  latest  Wood  initiative.

ACT’s  David Seymour said Labour is breaking its promise to introduce no new taxes by slapping new taxes on tradies, farmers and large families.

“The ‘feebate’ scheme ignores the fact that vehicles are already taxed and subsidised through the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).  In September 2020, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said ‘we will not be implementing any new taxes this term’, aside from hiking the top income tax rate.

“Let’s be clear – this is a new tax. A tradie or a farmer purchasing a Toyota Hilux will be slapped with a new tax of $2,900. A family buying a Kia Sportage will be taxed $1230.”

The combination of feebate plus ETS charges means a double tax for Kiwis who need larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles, Seymour said.

“Feebate ignores the fact that we already tax and subsidise cars based on their fuel efficiency.

“Motorists pay 77.3c a litre in petrol taxes, plus an ETS tax of 9c a litre. In Auckland, there’s a further 10c regional fuel tax. GST is charged on top, taking total tax to around 99.3c a litre (and 110.8c in Auckland).”

National’s  spokesman Michael  Woodhouse denounced the announcement as a government’ plan which penalises  those  who  live in  Papakura  at  the  expense of  those in Parnell.

Does this feature  worry  Ardern  or  Wood?  Apparently  not.

Was    there  a   cost-benefit  study  done   by  officials?   There’s been no word   of  one, any   more than  there  was  for  the  harbour  bridge  for  cyclists  and  walkers.

It  seems  the  government   has  discarded  the mantra that projects should  be    based  on a sound   business case  before  they command  taxpayer  funding.

Let’s wait nervously for the next big achievement  Wood  can  notch to on  his  political career.

One thought on “Wood is proving adept at steering major initiatives through Cabinet – but winning public approval for them will be more challenging

  1. Wood is adept at playing pork barrel politics to favour urban elites at the expense of the rest of New Zealand. The cycling bridge announcement was an act of spectacular insolence, coming as it did on the heels of the South Canterbury floods for which the government dispensed the laughable sum of $500,000 in aid. Not to forget the nurses, heroes of the fight against COVID, and their strong case for a pay rise. Now he has inserted himself between kiwis and their cars and especially the utes needed by tradies and farmers, some of the few remaining productive members of New Zealand society. Long may he continue, for he is ably demonstrating that Ardern’s election night promise to “govern for all New Zealanders” was yet another lie.

    Liked by 1 person

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