Party of No vs Council of Go

At least that's how it should be. But the politics of Len Brown are undermining Auckland's growth as National plays politics with transport

The tensions between Auckland and Wellington cannot be fudged anymore; it's clear that disagreements between the two are now holding the city back, as they bicker over transport funding.

Seeing the Prime Minister coming out today with some of the same lines Transport Minister Simon Bridges used on The Nation at the weekend shows that National has a lot riding on this. It could end up in the long lane, or worse, entirely the wrong side of the political road if it's not careful.

You can start the story of Auckland's transport problems a year ago, a decade ago or a generation (or two) ago. Thing is, it's our biggest city's biggest problem, we are suffering from generations of under-investment and Len Brown has won two election promising action. After much debate, consultation and expert advice, Auckland Council has come up with a plan.

And the government doesn't like it. Bridges likes to say it's "not optimal". Yet just what he thinks would be optimal remains elusive. We got the first glimpse of it on The Nation, when he said he thought that the plan of rail to the airport was a bad use of a lot of money and more should be spent on "local roads".

There are two problems with that. First, rail to the airport is far in the Council's funding future; it's already been kicked down and down the to-do list, despite it being one of Brown's election promises. Second, the research shows that local roads do sod all to ease congestion, because it just speeds up the flow to the next congestion point or the motorway on-ramp.

The change-maker is public transport, but while Bridges says on one had than the Council's plan does not make effective enough use of public transport, he (and Key) then revert back to talking about roads.

The Council's plan is not perfect, as no plan is. But it's good and it starts in the right place – the central rail link and bus-ways.

Thing is, the Council needs money to get moving, yet Aucklanders don't want to pay more rates and, anyway, Brown made a promise about that too. So the council has come up with a three year levy (one that even senior councillors such as Christine Fletcher are already saying may need to go beyond three years). It buys them time and allows them to start this term, thereby being able to show voters at next year's local body elections that they are "doing something".

But Auckland needs a lot more money. The Council wants the ability to toll, maybe a regional fuel tax. But that requires and law changes and National isn't having it.

Whether it's the influence of the roading lobby, the desire to damage this council and help create momentum for a right-wing mayor or genuine belief that more talking is the best thing, National is stalling.

Unbelievably, after generations of inaction and years of research, Bridges wants another year or two so that the council and government can reach "alignment". And by alignment, he means Auckland Council doing what he wants.

It's batty; action is needed urgently. Already the council is talking about hiring security guards for Britomart as it nears capacity and have stopped approving three special housing areas because of a lack of transport to and fro. It seems they have the sense to remember the problems Massey and other western suburbs faced back in the 1960s and 70s when they were built with no public transport, supermarkets, parks and so on.

Delaying now is pushing all kinds of costs and problems onto future generations, just as past inaction (by mostly National governments, it should be said) has created this backlog of problems today.

If it was any other council, the debate would be framed as the Council of Go v the Party of No. But the politics is that Key is backing his popularity against Brown's, and of course on that basis will win. The mood around Brown is just poisonous; he can't win even when he's played the politics very cleverly.

Brown has the plan, Brown wants to "get on with it" while the government is stopping him moving. The framing of this should be the government playing politics and stopping Auckland from getting moving.

It's certainly not, as Bridges mischievously claimed, about the government protecting "the chequebook". No, Auckland Council is asking for the powers to get Aucklanders to pay for the required work. The tolls or fuel tax wouldn't cost the government's books a cent. But because Brown is now a seen as a dirty old mayor, it looks like National thinks it can win a popularity contest and stare the mayor down.

It's a long way from the promise made by Rodney Hide – who was, you'll remember, a minister in the Key government – that with a super city Aucklanders would be "masters of their own destiny".

Instead, Auckland is speaking – pleading even – and Wellington is shrugging and refusing to budge.

If Key holds this line and refuses Auckland the power to act, he's very much at risk of getting on the wrong side of the politics heading into 2017. The biggest bit of feedback from the recent council submissions was "get on with it". Aucklanders may have run out of patience with Brown, but they (especially those under 40) will quickly run out of patience with a government that's stopping the building of better public transport.

And as we all know, lose Auckland and you lose elections.

But worse, you can forget flags and surpluses. If National doesn't let Auckland get on with it, Key's government will have a legacy (like National governments of the 1950s and 1970s) of stopping Aucklanders getting the transport networks – and therefore quality of life – that the country's biggest and only international city needs.