NZ Herald - Fran O'Sullivan: Note to Parliament - Never waste a crisis

19 Mar 2020 5:00 AM | Anonymous

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Fran O'Sullivan: Note to Parliament - Never waste a crisis

19 Mar, 2020 5:00am

5 minutes to read

National's Paul Goldsmith (right) struck an empathic tone this week for the Government's efforts that leader Simon Bridges lacked. Photo / File

By: Fran O'SullivanHead of Business, NZMEfran.o' @FranOSullivan


Simon Bridges has still not learnt the lesson that the role of an Opposition in a time of national crisis is not simply to oppose — but also to propose policies that will assist New Zealand as a whole.

Bridges' performance in Parliament on Tuesday came across as graceless. There was no empathy. This diminished the impact of some valid Opposition criticism of areas where the Government's performance has been behind the international pace in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic such as testing for the virus and the ropey border controls.

This is important but credit where credit is due.

It was left to his Finance and Infrastructure spokesman Paul Goldsmith to present a more accommodating and empathetic approach by taking issue with aspects of Grant Robertson's $12 billion Covid-19 economic package but also outlining some areas where the party would be prepared to assist the Government by supporting fast-track legislation to get some infrastructure projects moving quickly to stimulate the economy.

Goldsmith later spelt out those transport projects could include the Tauranga Northern link and Auckland's Mill Rd where legal hurdles could be removed or fast-tracked through urgent legislation.

It's debatable that the Government does need National's help.

But this is not the time to look a gift horse in the mouth.

In these times Robertson should reach out across Parliament for some constructive help from National.

Infrastructure Minister Phil Twyford has legislation moving through Parliament that will give the Government great powers to access urban land for housing and other legislation to create new infrastructure financing models. This could also be sped up if National came fully on board.

Goldsmith's suggestions were later amplified by Infrastructure NZ's CEO Paul Blair who observed that while the Government's $12.1b Covid-19 package will soften the impacts of the virus for individuals and businesses, "these extraordinary times also create the conditions for our Government to build investment momentum."

Infrastructure NZ's has come up with 10 suggestions to get some momentum into the economy through mobilising infrastructure investment.

Essentially, it boils down to "don't waste a good crisis."

Infrastructure NZ is also on song with Goldsmith arguing, "let's use these extraordinary times to ensure projects of national significance get consented, or Public Works Act interventions are made, to cut through excessive delays".

Blair concedes there is risk. But he makes the point that the Government is going to have to move quickly and responsively to a situation moving much faster than any infrastructure project. "Some decisions will turn out to be wrong, others right. It will be no different for business owners."

This is all good stuff.

But the Government should also not waste a good crisis and simply defer decisions on two pending major infrastructure projects: The Auckland light rail decision and the proposal to shift Auckland's port to Whangarei.

There is no unity with Cabinet on these project proposals.

Finance Minister Robertson. Photo / File

They are financially risky and in the current economic environment it makes more sense to proceed with projects that are close to "shovel ready" and can employ people.

Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones conceded at a recent Infracom event that there was a lot of risk around moving the port. But also a lot of inertia and shared his view that the bureaucracy was risk averse. That decision is not due to be made by Cabinet until May.

NZ First clearly wishes to campaign on the port move to Northland at the election (it was part of the 2017 coalition agreement). But Robertson — who is cautious on this proposal — should simply use the crisis and defer the call until after the Government has dealt with the pandemic.

It is an unnecessary distraction.

As is the pending decision on Auckland light rail.

The Ministry of Transport has had consultants working with it to evaluate options.

This is a major project pipeline call where the recently established Infrastructure Commission should also have an opportunity to present advice.

It is understood that commission chairman Alan Bollard and CEO Jon Grayson have been allowed into the "black room" — or secure data room — to run their ruler over the two competing light rail options which were supposed to go to Cabinet in the first week of March.

There are strict confidentiality conditions over the competing proposals — NZ Infra, a joint venture between the NZ Super Fund and Canada's CDPQ Infra group, and one from the NZ Transport Agency.

Even before the Covid-19 virus pandemic wrought havoc on the NZ economy it was clear there was friction within Cabinet.

As Jones said at the Infracom event, a "$10b project would be the subject of some serious teeth-gnashing and work by the Infrastructure Commission", citing the cost explosion on Auckland's City Rail link.

New Zealand is not going to grind to a halt if these decisions are deferred.

There is plenty to get on with and the likelihood of better deals down the road.

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