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.