Process, not pork the problem for National

Matthew Hooton’s jihad against Imam Steven Joyce and his pork-barrel Muldonism is legendary. 

But in his desperation to find National party flag-bearers to fight the pork-pushers, he’s picked the wrong martyr. 

Simon Bridges is a card carrying porker from way back.

Here’s what Matthew Hooton said this week in his NBR column:

“It is not in Mr Bridges’ political DNA to stick his fingers into the taxpayers’ pockets to snatch $69 million to bribe voters during a by-election. Nor does his experience outplaying Mr Peters in Tauranga suggest it would be a good idea.”

Except that’s 100 per cent wrong. It is in his DNA. And it is exactly how he ‘outplayed’ Winston Peters in Tauranga.

In 2008 John Key rode into Tauranga with $100 million of tax payers money, promising to turn the city’s road corridor into a four-lane state highway within six years - as long as the people voted for Simon.

You don’t get much porkier than that.

This is a problem for right wing supporters of National like Matthew, hoping the party will one day return to its Act-like, sit-back-and-let-the-market-do-its-work roots. Handing out cash to private companies or electorates in return for favours and political support is deep in the DNA of this government - from Sky City to Rio Tinto, Warner Brothers to Northland bridges. 

And it’s worked pretty well for them so far.

Intervention in the market is what makes the left  - left.  But that is not the same as handouts to favourite-child companies. This is the great dividing line between left and right. The right picks winners, then hates itself for betraying its small government roots. The left sets out to actively manage the economy, because that’s the job of governments, it says.

That can mean subsidies for all overseas film companies so we remain a competitive location to film  - not a handout to one film company making three Hobbit films.

It can mean promising to build roads from forests to mills if overseas owners of the forests agree to process wood here rather than send raw logs off-shore. Not a promise to build bridges or roads for votes.

It can mean giving our best businesses a tax break so they spend more on R&D and become the Ikea of the Pacific making chairs and tables, instead of a forest or a paddock exporting ingredients to the world. Not a tax break to those who have already made their wealth and want to sit on mounds of capital.

There’s nothing wrong with building bridges in Northland or roads in Tauranga, or even politicians promising to do these things in by-elections. Investing in infrastructure - roads, rail, energy - stimulates the economy when it is otherwise starved of capital.

The problem is process. You have to weight up the cost of spending $69 million on bridges up North against building bridges somewhere else, or building a new school or a hospital. You need a mechanism for deciding if a project is fully funded by government or costs are shared with private capital. 

Only an independent body can do that transparently.

The Northland by-election has revealed our complete lack of accountable processes for deciding what infrastructure gets prioritised in this country. 

In 2008 I campaigned for Jim Anderton and his idea of an New Zealand Infrastructure Development Bank because it makes sense, no matter which side of the political divide your DNA sits.

They have one in America, precisely to curb pork barrel politics and make sure tax payers money is spent where it’ll get the rest returns.

Otherwise the location of Muldoon’s Think Big projects, Steven Joyce’s bridges and Simon Bridges’ roads will uncomfortably be found in marginal seats.

This is a very bad way to make public policy. An Infrastructure Bank would get rid of the temptation to offer pork. 

That’s a better bet than waiting for someone in this National government to live up to Matthew’s laissez-faire standards.