The March 15 attack and the Christchurch Call aside, the Prime Minister’s strongest leadership moment this year was her reshuffle in June.
No one was left in any doubt that Jacinda Ardern was drawing a line under the KiwiBuild debacle. She unceremoniously sacked Phil Twyford from housing, appointing the safe-pair-of-hands Dr Megan Woods. She offered no excuses. Instead, she took responsibility for the disaster and thereby restored control over the issue. Opposition attacks immediately lost their sting.
At the same time, there was surprise at Twyford’s promotion to Minister for Economic Development and his retention of his fifth-ranked spot, ahead of much more competent ministers such as Woods, Chris Hipkins, Andrew Little, Carmel Sepuloni, David Clark, David Parker, Nanaia Mahuta and Stuart Nash.
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In transport circles, there was huge disappointment Twyford had kept that job.
Housing has unique symbolism for Labour, given Michael Joseph Savage, Walter Nash, John A. Lee and Sir James Fletcher’s state housing programme in the 1930s. Through most of the 2010s, Labour had lamented a housing crisis that its 100,000-home KiwiBuild programme was meant to fix. Its obsession with the issue even led to a major ethical lapse, when Twyford, then Opposition Housing spokesperson, launched his bizarre “Chinese-sounding names” campaign.
Given this context, Twyford had overseen perhaps the greatest single policy failure in New Zealand’s history. Worse, it was one about which he had been warned by the business community and Treasury officials for more than a year.
On the day of the reshuffle, the transport industry moaned that if you thought KiwiBuild was a mess, wait until you see the shambles coming along in our sector.
The coalition abandoning all major roading projects in 2017 can perhaps by blamed less on Twyford and more on the Greens. Now that NZ First and wiser heads in Labour have asserted themselves, most will resume, albeit after at least two wasted years.
Administratively, Twyford has overseen a revolving door at the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) including falling out with former chairman Michael Stiassny over the Auckland business leader’s aggressive push to require NZTA to meet its legal responsibilities for safety compliance.
These foibles might be forgiven except that Twyford is now overseeing another KiwiBuild-level debacle with the Auckland rapid transit programme.
Twyford is now overseeing another KiwiBuild-level debacle with the Auckland rapid transit programme.
As with KiwiBuild, he seems impervious to all the flashing lights and warning bells right in front of him.
The so-called airport tram has always been contentious. Seen as former Auckland Transport (AT) chief executive David Warburton’s legacy project, it has split the transport lobby along its usual roads-vs-rail divide. Roughly, it has historically been supported by the likes of Greater Auckland, Generation Zero, Bike Auckland, Heart of the City and the Labour Party, and opposed by the likes of the Automobile Association (AA), the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) and the National Party.
In 2017, then Transport Minister Simon Bridges ostensibly supported it, but only on the 30-year timeframe used when people really mean never.
Labour had no such reservations in 2017, with then Opposition leader Jacinda Ardern saying stage one from Queen St to Mt Roskill would not only be started but be fully completed by 2021, and that the tram would reach the airport by 2027.
Nearly three years later, there is neither a route nor a provider.
Twyford blames NZTA for dropping the ball after the Super Fund and CDPQ made a bid in May 2018 for the project. He insists the bid was unsolicited, despite he and Finance Minister Grant Robertson beginning a secret dialogue with the fund in January 2018 through AT board member Sir Michael Cullen and City Rail Link tsar Sir Brian Roche, now chairman of NZTA.
Oddly, Twyford’s Ministry of Transport (MoT), which usually limits itself to policy advice, was put in charge of deciding between an NZTA proposal and that from the Super Fund and CDPQ.
The MoT’s chief executive is Peter Mersi, whose background is as a policy adviser in education, health, justice, labour markets, defence, social development and public sector management. He was appointed in 2016 after leading Land Information New Zealand, the Department of Internal Affairs and the IRD’s Business Transformation division.
While well regarded in his policy roles, some in the transport sector are bewildered the Government has put Mersi in charge of a multibillion-dollar engineering project.
There are also doubts about the integrity of the decision-making process. Roche, NZTA’s chairman, is presumably not even involved in pushing his agency’s bid given his earlier involvement with the Super Fund and CDPQ. Especially given Twyford’s criticisms of NZTA, the industry expectation is that the Super Fund and CDPQ will be chosen as MoT’s partner.
However, do not think this is the end of the matter. It has now been revealed that the only decision that will be made in the new year is which of NZTA or the Super Fund and CDPQ will be MoT’s preferred “delivery partner”. What system they will be required to deliver, where it will go, when it will be built, what they will be paid and how and when the Government will transfer that consideration will remain undecided.
This is, to put it mildly, an unorthodox way of managing a multibillion-dollar procurement process.
It has led to the unprecedented development, just before Christmas, of Greater Auckland, Generation Zero, Bike Auckland and Heart of the City, co-signing a letter with the AA and EMA condemning Twyford’s process as non-transparent and irregular. Unless major changes are made, any decision Mersi makes is certain to be judicially reviewed, further delaying progress towards any rapid transit solution for Auckland.
After his KiwiBuild disaster, you might expect Twyford to listen to such concerns but you would be wrong. Once again, he seems blithely unaffected by the advice from the sector.
Ardern’s unfortunate declaration of 2019 as “the year of delivery” was designed to deflect attention from Twyford’s emerging KiwiBuild disaster. She would have been better to have packed him off to the backbenches immediately. Nearly a year later, the same is true in transport.