[This article is a post-election commentary about ways forward.]
Green co-leader Russel Norman: “The dominant ideas of the last generation are no longer fit for purpose.”
The election majority: “We’re sticking with them.”
I was surprised by a handful of outcomes from the election. I expected National to win, but more narrowly. I thought the Greens might rise enough to start challenging Labour as Opposition leader, as Labour works on the choice between being broad left-wing versus more narrowly focused advocate for the labour force, and the Greens at last start to get a smattering of economic nous.
And I was most surprised that tens of thousands of voters could cast a vote for the candidate of one party (notably Labour, especially its leader & former leaders), then party vote for a direct opponent (notably switching to National). Those voters were telling these candidates they would support their presence in Parliament, but not in government.
The Greens campaigned on a platform of “cleaner, fairer, smarter” and, while Labour was infighting & uncertain during the last 3 years, the Greens stepped into a leadership role of looking to the future rather than management of today.
Co-leader Russel Norman highlighted 3 issues in his closing campaign speech on 18 September: contesting asset sales, opposing the SkyCity convention deal and advocating for clean rivers. Each of these issues has an economic, social or environmental basis which sets the Greens apart from both National & Labour.
In that speech, Mr Norman said: “Elections should throw up new thinking to help drive our country forward because the dominant ideas of the last generation are no longer fit for purpose. They have left our environment & too many of our people in trouble. We need new thinking to take on the increasingly complex challenges we face as a country, and as a human race. National has completely failed to grasp this….”
No government seeking a third term is going to advocate much change – that would be telling the electorate what it’s done in the first 6 years was wrong.
The question now is, for both the Government and for opponents’ ideas: ‘Where to next?’ From this website’s perspective, that question concerns economic policy, property, resource management, transport, local government.
During Helen Clark’s third term in office, her government increasingly turned to self-preservation as first option. That option, I think, guaranteed defeat. National incorporates self-preservation along the way, only occasionally launching into bolder policy initiatives. It’s felt safe heading to the right on resource management, will feel it has support to continue implementing those reforms and will feel less need to accommodate opposing views.
As billions of dollars are spent on remedying & litigating leaky building errors, a basic National philosophy – that safeguards are an expense to be avoided if possible – will prevail. It will also continue to prevail through the housing accord mechanism for ramping up residential development, where the emphasis on speed will put construction ahead of providing infrastructure such as efficient & cost-effective access, and social infrastructure such as sports facilities & other community amenities.
Likewise, in transport more generally, National will see the vote as a mandate to continue the Roads of National Significance programme and to limit support for expanding public transport networks. Urban congestion will grow, but this will be a problem for somebody else to fix later.
Economist Gareth Morgan wrote on his blog 3 days before the election: “Overall it is almost impossible for the average voter to sort their way through [transport policies]. Which policy really is best? This is more confused when local authority plans for public transport are based on the government roading plans for their area. Why not have one, agreed, ideal plan for transport in our major cities that covers road, rail, cycling & walking?”
The Government’s NZ Transport Agency looks after highways, including highways running through cities, and provides funding at lower levels. In Auckland, creation of the super-city means Auckland Transport manages what was previously a fragmented transport network.
You could argue that all city transport & networks could be managed by the city, and funded directly. You could also argue that central government could manage everything, but to do that it would still require local managers & knowledge. And you could argue that local networks could be managed locally – in Auckland, now, ward by ward – which would effectively return Auckland to the previous local government setup.
You could also accept the Morgan recommendation of a single plan, which would identify the poor transition between motorway & the urban street network as the major congestion cause.
Under all of those models, transport & access are treated as something separate when they should be treated as integral. Cost:benefit ratios are mostly focused on the route & service provided rather than the potential wider economic gains and potentially drastic lifestyle changes. To take that wider view you need to dream a bit – what kind of city, what kind of suburb, where will people work, how will they spend their free time, should the spending on infrastructure lead them in certain directions?
Dr Morgan advocated depoliticising road & public transport funding, but there’s always going to be an argument about what’s best, and what’s best can change. Cycling is a transport means from the past which is gaining new popularity, increased urban living makes walking more practical for many, public transport is useful for regular commutes but also requires inbuilt flexibility to meet new demands, the availability of anytime private transport is a luxury whose benefits are readily enjoyed but whose true cost is rarely examined.
As an example of managing resources, when the infrequent use of many suburban streets is considered, do they need to have 2 lanes of seal? Although advocates of more extensive business land availability push for greenfield expansion, is there a case instead for more intensive business use of existing land – multi-storey commercial & industrial premises?
National will continue its roads-based strategy. Advocates of alternatives will have to produce deep & imaginative research and, for Auckland, ideas which transcend the mostly narrowly focused submissions process on the council’s unitary plan.
Resource management generally needs better than a tightening or loosening of controls in accordance with political shifts. National is intent on loosening controls on development and tightening controls on council activity. The loosening amounts to dismantling a model built up over 2 decades to better understand outcomes of land use, which ought to have brought evident benefits. Unfortunately the model was accompanied by regulatory excess, so the tightening is aimed at strapping councils in rather than offering them space to do a more limited job better.
National has been directing New Zealanders toward more personal responsibility, toward personal investment & less state intervention, and I think that undercurrent is what brought more support for National, gradually building up over 6 years. The excitement of revelations, the possibility that leaders were doing things they shouldn’t, didn’t outweigh the core view implanted by this government that individuals can decide the course of their own lives and pay less to look after others. First, it’s selfish; second, it’s a societal shift.
Advocates of less self-indulgence & more communal support will have a hard job being heard, as advocates of restraining public spending hold the upper hand.
Links: Russel Norman, campaign close
Gareth Morgan, blog 17 September 2014: Politicians not experts on transport – Why trust them to make smart decisions
Attribution: Norman campaign close, Morgan blog, own comments.