To call each thing by its right name

Why did Mark Osborne get to tell Northland it was going to get ten new bridges that it might want, but doesn't appear to need? And why am I paying for him getting to do so?

Let's begin with a degree of realism. Politics is, at its core, about the distribution of resources and deciding who gets what from whom. That's a given until the human race reaches a point of post-material scarcity and develops into The Culture

So of course at any election there is going to be an element of "vote buying", in terms of candidates and parties trying to exchange promises of better things to come for electoral support now. You can't have elections without this - indeed, you wouldn't want to have elections without it, for how else are you to assess whether a candidate or party is good for you without knowing what they plan to do for you?

But there's a point at which such politicking crosses over from the necessary and desirable into something a whole lot more troubling. It's not an easy point to define - it may well be more one of gut-feeling than logical rationalisation. But for me it was reached by the sight of National's candidate, Mark Osborne, fronting a government announcement that an additional $32-$69 million (or maybe more, or maybe less, because who really knows?) will be spent on building ten new bridges in the electorate he's seeking election in. An election that is now only 19 days away.

Note who made the announcement. This is public money being spent on public infrastructure. It's a project of the New Zealand Government. Yet the name attached to the spending is that of a private citizen ... albeit one that has the backing of the nation's ruling party, which also holds the nation's purse strings. Which it has now opened to aid its candidate in his quest to join its other members in Parliament.

It's being presented as Mr Osborne's gift to his prospective constituents. Kindly funded by you, me and everyone else who pays tax in New Zealand.

Even the Minister Simon Bridges didn't bother to deny the motivation behind this announcement: "There's no question that the decision to do these bridges [is] in the context of a by-election ... ." Apparently he could see there was no point trying to pretend this was anything other than what it was.

Oh well, you might try and reassure yourself. Maybe the motivations behind this announcement are cynical at best, but at least something good will come out of it. Northland will get a bunch of new bridges to deliver safer roads and help fix its transport problems.

That would be true ... but only if it were true that these bridges really are a desperately needed bit of infrastructure. And there's very good reason to doubt that this is the case.

To begin with, note that National has what we might call "form" in this area. As Rob Salmond showed back in July last year, previous announcements of spending on roading projects that just happen to fall within electorates represented by National MPs involved "massive wastes of public money, pork-barrelling, and probable bullying of officials."

However, maybe Northland is different. Maybe this spending really is desperately needed in order to fix an urgent issue that is crying out for attention.

Apparently not. You see, the Northland Regional Council is currently putting together its Regional Land Transport Plan for 2015-2021 (you can download a copy from here). This document:

... is Northland's collective bid for funding assistance from the National Land Transport Fund, via the New Zealand Transport Agency.

It details:

  • Priorities for the region for the next ten years, including objectives, policies and measures to address these priorities
  • Local roading projects proposed by the Far North, Whangarei, and Kaipara District Councils
  • State Highway projects proposed by the New Zealand Transport Agency
  • Strategic projects and public transport matters dealt with by the Northland Regional Council

And in this document, only three of the ten bridges that the Government has now committed to funding are even mentioned as possible projects: Matakohe Bridge, Kaeo Bridge and Taipa Bridge. The other seven appear to be so far down the list of possible projects that the Regional Council doesn't bother putting them up for consideration in the plan.

And what about those three bridges that do warrant mention in the plan? Well, they are each given a "priority weighting". This priority weighting looks at each project's "strategic fit", its "effectiveness" and its "comparative benefit and cost appraisal" - in other words, does it mesh with the overall plan for the region's transport, will it work to fix a problem and is it value for money?

(See page 21 of the Council's plan for how this is calculated.)

What this means is that the less pressing the case is for going through with the project, the lower the priority weighting given to it by the Council. How, then, do the three identified projects stack up?

One of them, the Kaeo Bridge, gets a priority rating of four; that's in the middle of the range of potential projects. The other two - Matakohe Bridge and Taipa Bridge - both get sevens. That is as low a priority rating as a project can get and still get put up by the Council for possible funding by the Government.

(See page 34 of the Council's plan for this information.)

Well, what about the notion that replacing these bridges is a crucial safety measure - that they are a "a ticking time-bomb" in Mr Osborne's words? Oddly enough, if you look at the Council's list of factors contributing to Northland accidents (see pages 11-12 of its plan), one lane bridges don't appear on it at all. So while there no doubt are some anecdotal accounts of accidents - even quite serious accidents - on these bridges, there seem to be a whole lot of more pressing safety problems calling for a fix in Northland.

Finally, you may wonder, where is the money going to come from to build these ten bridges that the Government thinks are so critical? It'll be paid for by the National Land Transport Fund. Here's how the Chair and Chief Executive of this organisation describe its role:

[The NLTF] targets investment in land transport to where it is most needed, reflecting a whole-of-life view to ensure that the best transport system is developed for the long-term benefit of New Zealanders. It does this through land transport investments that support productivity, economic growth and safety; as well as ensuring value for money while providing a range of travel choices for New Zealanders.

Quite how paying for ten new bridges in Northland, seven of which the Regional Council didn't think it even worth asking for and another two of which are right at the very, very bottom of its priority ratings, meets this organisation's lofty goals is ... interesting to think about.

So - let's have a little recap of where we are. Less than three weeks out from an election, the nation's Governing Party has allowed its candidate in that election to go before the media and tell the voters that some $32-$69 million of public money will be spent within the electorate's boundaries on fixing something that the voters obviously don't like (who wouldn't want to have a "proper" bridge to drive on, rather than constantly have to wait for a single lane one to clear?) even though the local Regional Council doesn't think that this problem should be a priority, and that this will be paid for by making the agency in charge of funding transport in New Zealand divert money away from other, more pressing projects that would be more effective and better value for money.

Here, then, is a fun game to finish with. Imagine that this didn't happen in good old clean New Zealand, with its number two ranking in Transparency International's corruption perceptions index. Imagine instead it happened in, I don't know ... New Jersey. Or Hungary. Or Venezuela.

What would you call it then?