Does the Government really want Auckland Mayor Phil Goff to sting ratepayers – again – in a general election year to help fund the city’s transport crisis?

The tedious standoff between central and local governments over the multi-billion dollar transport projects needed in the coming decade could soon have major political fallout, and not just for Goff.

In last year’s mayoral campaign the former Labour MP promised to hold rate increases to 2.5 percent. National has since said a flat “no” to other fundraising options, ruling out a regional fuel tax, frowning at tolling or congestion charges, and putting a mythical date on light rail to the airport.

Goff has few options. He can snip away at minor Council or Council-controlled companies’ budgets like he is trying to do with his hotel levy to pay part of the budget of the economic development and tourism agency ATEED. This and the sinking lid on Council staffing that Goff’s critics highlight as a major saving are unlikely to provide the money needed.

In Year One of his mayoralty, he faces the risk of having to put up residential rates by more than the average 2.5 percent promised and breach one of those bold campaign bright lines. 

Prime Minister Bill English was playing Auckland Roulette on the AM Show this morning on TV3 – telling Duncan Garner Auckland had to find ways to “prioritise” its spending in general to contribute to solving the transport crisis. He didn’t want rates to go up by more than the rate Goff had promised but needed Auckland Council to put up more money.

Goff responded, saying anywhere else in the country infrastructure projects such as those Auckland needs would be paid for 100 percent by the central government, not the half share imposed on his city.  He was clearly displeased by English’s comments but wouldn’t criticise National, straining to retain the diplomacy he learned as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The political blowback might not all be on Goff.  English and finance minister Steven Joyce and those fronting the Treasury’s hardline against Auckland face a general election in five months.

Forcing the Auckland mayor and council to push up rates beyond promised limits because the Government can’t live with any other option to fund transport is a high-risk play.

Rates bills land about July. Transport gridlock is Aucklanders’ biggest bugbear.  

To be told the rate hike is because the National-led government refuses to allow a regional fuel tax – by which high-use motorists would pay more, not public transport users, the elderly or those living and working in hubs – is the bullet English doesn’t need in the roulette pistol.

Alternatively, if Goff holds rates to 2.5 percent and National is left with no concrete plan of how to fund and fix the Auckland transport problem, that is also an unwanted election risk.

If ever there was a tax Aucklanders should be willing to pay, it is a surcharge on petrol to help free the roads – at peak hours and also the congestion that is seizing up the city through working days and on both Saturdays and Sundays.

Inconveniently for the incumbent Government, Goff’s former colleagues in Labour are highly likely to approve law changes for what Auckland wants in transport funding alternatives. 

A Labour Party serious about taking power – and therefore having to show where it would get the money – would likely want to green light the regional fuel tax. Bang. Proof something could be done without future rates rises beyond a politically tolerable range.

Despite a political temptation to just put up the rates and watch National squirm, Goff and his councillors are unlikely to do that without more of a fight.  

The transport challenges are too great to allow a Joyce-style political blinking game. And rates aren’t the place to be paying for transport infrastructure in the medium term.

On almost every big transport issue, the prime example being the City Rail Link, this administration has ended up accepting Auckland’s need after years of bluster. 

Why must Aucklanders, whose city contributes so much to the Government’s revenue, go through another round? One way or another, they will soon be ready to cry “enough”. 

Could it be on polling day, September 23?

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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