Politicians love power and control. Being able to glide around the country, promising free puppies to the good people who like them, and smacked bottoms to the BAD PEOPLE WHO WOULD PROBABLY SEND THEIR PUPPIES TO SCHOOL WITH NO LUNCH seems to be the first page of the politician’s handbook. Heck – you might even think it’s the foundation of democracy.
So, when parliament makes a decision to voluntarily limit its own power, you know something exceptional is going on.
There are a handful of cases in New Zealand’s history when parliament has decided that it can’t be trusted with power. For example, our courts are independent, because we think it’s important the people making laws aren’t the ones enforcing it, and that lawmakers are subject to the law themselves.
The media is independent (in theory at least), because we need a voice that can criticise the government.
Imagine if Pharmac didn’t make independent funding decisions. If parliament controlled the decisions we’d all be up to our eyeballs in Viagra and Rogaine, and no one would be able to get antibiotics. If the Reserve Bank didn’t have independence – when the Reserve Bank didn’t have independence – the government could pretty much give away free money just before an election.
There is another domain in which the government knew they could not be trusted. A domain that allowed politicians to target election bribes with surgical precision; to reward their devotees and punish their detractors; to treat the country like their own personal game of Minecraft:
In Muldoon’s day, if there was a marginal electorate up for grabs, a candidate could just promise to gold-pave the town centre if their side won. If a particular business or industry dangled a big enough donation in front of a politician they might suddenly find their trucks had smooth, wide roads right up to the factory gate. Those icky poor people didn’t like having a motorway cut through their community? Well, they should have voted differently!
So, in the 1980s, the government made a noble decision for the good of the country: they would give the power to make funding decisions to an independent board, who would look dispassionately,at all the projects that local government and the State Highway agency wanted to build, and would grant funding only to the objectively-best projects.
The government, which, after all, has the mandate from the public to influence how their taxes are spent, were able to give general objectives and set strategy (this is now done in the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport), but they could not get involved in particular projects. So, they might say “put $500 million in the public transport activity class and $2 billion in the State Highways activity class and aim to reduce the annual road toll to 300” – but that was about as far as their influence reached.
This wasn’t all selfless on the part of the politicians. I used to work a the Ministry of Transport, and when the public wrote to the Minister saying a particular road should or shouldn’t be built, the all-purpose, get-out-of-jail free card was “the Board has statutory independence under the Land Transport Management Act, and I have no power to interfere with their funding decisions”.
Politicians love having someone else to blame.
But they hate not being able to offer those bribes.
Over the years, the temptations have proved too sweet for governments, both Labour and National. And they have found ways to get around the Land Transport Management Act, and erode the New Zealand Transport Agency’s ability to fund the best projects. Labour, for instance, compartmentalised some of the funding available to the Board and said it had to be dedicated to regions on a population basis, rather than on a needs basis. That meant terrible projects in some regions would be funded ahead of desperately-needed projects in others.
National has taken the art of circumventing the Land Transport Management Act to new heights with its “Roads of National Significance”. This is a handful of cherry-picked, flashy and eye-wateringly expensive projects that will generate a lot of exciting press releases and have benefits that barely exceed the costs (and might not exceed them at all, if the costs blow out).
How do they make the New Zealand Transport Agency fund them? Here’s a quote from the 2015 Government Policy Statement:
“The Agency will bring forward these projects to take advantage of the additional funding available where appropriate. The investment will flow into the Fund when the relevant activities are approved by the Agency.”
Let me put that in ordinary English: “Here’s a big pile of cash that you can only use for our pet projects. If you don’t approve them, the cash disappears”.
So in reality, transport election bribes are back on the table. You might remember the most embarrassing case in recent times – two weeks before the 2015 Northland By-Election National promised $69 million to replace 10 single-lane bridges if the people voted for their guy, Mark Osborne. The people of Northland were rightly skeptical and chose a guy who would never make reckless and cynical election promises: Winston Peters
My own electorate, Ōhāriu, is far from immune to embarrassing election transport “solutions”. A few weeks before Peter Dunne resigned, he announced that, because Ngauranga Gorge (the major route into our electorate) was closed for one day, due to a slip, we should investigate a 4-kilometre tunnel alongside the road. Strangely enough, when a second slip closed Ngaio Gorge (another major road in our electorate) for two weeks, he did not propose another tunnel. Perhaps that has something to do with the tumbleweeds that rolled across the Internet following his Ngauranga tunnel announcement. Perhaps that unenthusiastic reaction factored into his decision to resign.
So, wild roading election promises are all the rage again.
At TOP, we want to end this road rage, restore the Land Transport Agency’s independence, and bring rail funding decisions into its purview. We want the agency to be able to rationally weigh up decisions on whether road, rail, buses or demand management are the best solution to a particular transport problem.
Go on. Vote for TOP. You can use your new UBI to buy your own puppy.