Auckland is like a rat in a maze of the National government's making. But Phil Goff is determined to find his own way out... and he just might be about to find a door
Lisa Owen doesn't look much like Steven Joyce. Or Simon Bridges. Or Bill English for that matter. But Phil Goff didn't seem to notice or care when he sat down to be interviewed by her on The Nation this morning. While Lisa sat across the table from him, it was those men he was talking to.
The interview – apart from revealing at least two important pieces of news – focused on Auckland's new budget, jast passed at the end of the week, and while he was explaining it to the wider audience, it was obvious he had a smaller audience of three in mind. While he used the word, "they", he might as well have been saying "you".
"...they know that we are the one internationally competitive city that New Zealand has and we cannot remain internationally competitive if we’re gridlocked..." Goff said.
What's more, Goff added:
"If they want our city to be congested, gridlocked and unaffordable, they will do nothing. I think they know better than that."
"They understand the situation that Auckland is in. They understand because every economist advising them will be telling them this – that the benefits of growth come 10 to 25 years down the track, but the costs fall now. And they know that Auckland has to succeed for New Zealand to succeed."
And just to add:
"We’ve just passed a budget – $2 billion in extra infrastructure expenditure, 40% of that going into transport, but 70% of the increase in investment in infrastructure going into transport. Now, our problem, and Bill English knows this well – I’ve had the discussion with him – and so does Steven Joyce. Our problem is that we’ve just about reached the limit for our borrowing."
And to ram it home:
"What I'm saying to all political parties is that we cannot continue with a situation where it is unaffordable for a young family to buy a home of their own in Auckland."
Yep, Mr Mayor, you've made yourself clear. Auckland is telling Wellington it needs money, with the clear coda that if it keeps choosing to give Auckland the finger, Auckland voters may respond in kind.
In a way, this interview simply underlined Goff's approach to the National government since he won the mayoralty. In public he has politely and firmly pointed out the real politik – Auckland has a major infrastructure deficit, can't overcome that without central government funding and Auckland voters are getting fed up with the years of stalling.
Goff – and to an extent Auckland – is like a rat in a maze of National's making. He can't move down the path marked 'borrowing' because the city has hit its debt ceiling in borrowing for its half of the Central Rail Link. He can't try the 'rates rises' route because citizens (and councillors) won't accept more than the 2.5 percent increase he promised on the campaign.
He tried the 'regional fuel tax' path, but Joyce et al blocked that off. He (and his predecessor Len Brown) have been banging at 'congestion charges' door, but again, National has said no.
Every way Goff tries to turn in this maze, National has a wall built. And if you doubt their determined obstructionism, think on their stalling the CRL for years, on their removing the regional fuel tax and their decision to spend a year – a year! after so many years! – trying to get "alignment" between council and government on transport priorities.
So why the obstruction? Because National is trying to force the rat in a certain direction. First, it wants Auckland Council to cut spending. Second, it wants it to sell assets. The cheese is at the end of those corridors.
So Goff is in a bind with few paths to choose. He's gone a wee way down the assets path, divesting Auckland Council of its stocks and shares and even talking about selling off the Ports of Auckland company. He's cut spending (a programme begun under Rat... I mean Len... Brown).
But rather than just follow the path to the cheese, wily old Goff has chosen to keep banging his head at the wall of the maze, insisting that unless the crazed National party scientists open a few more doors, all those Aucklander stuck in traffic and unable to afford a house are eventually going to look up and start recognising who's to blame for the fact they're trapped in this insane maze.
Remarkably, it seems his strategy may be about to pay dividends. He had a win this past week, pushing through his tourist bed tax, in an effort to show government that he's willing to be creative – and indeed obstinate – in finding new funding sources.
But even more significantly, he told Owen the government next week will announce congestion charges for Auckland... not in a hurry, but in the "medium term"; say 5-6 years. That's not a back-down by National, who have in the past year or two refused to rule them out, but it's certainly, finally, movement. And an acceptance of some responsibility. Goff said:
"Now, next week, you'll hear an announcement from Government on road pricing. I don't want to comment on it, because I can't pre-empt the Government's announcement."
Um, I think you just announced it, Mr Mayor! In doing so he risked the ire of Bridges et al. But this is no greenshoots politico we're talking about here. Goff very purposely went on television and pre-empted the government's announcement to put some heat under the government and ensure they don't get cold feet.
The other bit of new he threw out, was that Auckland's $4 billion shortfall in transport funding over the next decade is in fact $7 billion now. That's an explosive number. Why the increase? Because the lower number was based on Auckland growing by 16,000 people each year, whereas it's now growing by 45,000 per annum.
Who controls immigration? Central government. Yep, the rat is still banging his head against that wall. Or as Goff put it:
"And the Government knows – I've given them all the figures on that – they know that with that growth, 800 extra cars on the road each week, they've got to work with us to resolve this problem – for the sake of New Zealand as well as Auckland."
Did you hear that Mssrs Joyce, Bridges and English? Because he was talking to you.