National launched its commuter rail policy for Auckland yesterday – at the Papakura station that was closed for the day with buses being used to ferry people where they wanted to go.

The platform upon which the Prime Minister Bill English and his ministers, MPs and candidates lined up to announce advances in rail spending was cuttingly cold and made all the more bleak by the only rail movement being a yellow maintenance vehicle rattling through. 

Auckland commuter trains sat idle. The ‘Tag-on, Tag-off’ scanners were silent. 

In fairness, it was a hastily arranged affair with notice of Bill English’s big announcement coming at the last minute last week. That raised the suspicion, asked of Transport Minister Simon Bridges and denied at a press stand-up after the announcement, of the governing party scrambling to match Labour’s Auckland transport reveal in the city at lunchtime.

It would probably have been good to have an electric passenger train calling in at one of the platforms while the 160 or so people heard National outline its funding for an extension of the electrification of the rail network from Papakura to Pukekohe. Even a whistle from a driver signalling doors about to shut would have added flavour.

For all that it would be easy to contrast National’s cold, quiet station with the earlier colour and sunshine when a crowd of 400 waited for new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, the fact was National’s announcements and the performance of English and Bridges, in particular, made for a campaign event that succeeded in spite of itself. The crowd was happy with what it heard and cheered its local MP Judith Collins resplendent in a blue scarf that could have blunted Jacindamania on its own.

Ardern, speaking in a plaza beside Auckland’s Viaduct Events Centre, exulted in the crowd’s response to her election last week. Attempted chants of the new party slogan “Let’s Do This” suffered somewhat from participants not knowing which word to emphasise most. Ardern set them straight at the end of her speech with a firm “Let’s DO this”.

It was a relatively spring-like, vibrant event; she spoke with a backdrop of the Sky Tower and waters of the Viaduct. In the words of a Trump adviser last week, it was all very “cosmopolitan”. He meant it as a negative but Ardern and Labour would revel in that label.

Labour has opted to bet big on a light rail line from the CBD up Queen St, along Dominion Rd to the highway to the airport.

She had the actor Robyn Malcolm introduce her, a Green supporter bringing the love to “the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.” Labour had squads of young supporters in white T-shirts with Let’s Do This and its Te Reo equivalent Hoake Tatou printed on them. List MP Raymond Huo says the Chinese translation auspiciously equates to a New Year’s message from President Xi Xinping encouraging China to “roll its sleeves up”.

It was a full-on campaign event, 48 days before the election. The Rail and Maritime Transport Union was there with placards against driver-only trains, John Tamihere was back, with his mate Willie Jackson the Labour list candidate, Julie-Ann Genter was there from the Greens. Curiously, when Ardern asked who was present from lobby groups Greater Auckland, Cycling Action Auckland and Generation Zero, there was just one little voice from the latter. (*Update – They were indeed there, if self-restrained. Photographic evidence has been supplied via Twitter.)

Labour has opted to bet big on a light rail line from the CBD up Queen St, along Dominion Rd to the highway to the airport. Phase one would be to the end of Dominion Rd, but the rest would be built within the next decade. It will also cut back plans for an East-West highway from Onehunga along the shores of the Manukau linking the southwest and southern motorways to save money. All up, Labour plans to invest $2.1 billion more than currently scheduled on Auckland transport infrastructure.

To pay for the light rail and other bus and light rail projects, the party will allow Auckland Council to seek a regional fuel tax of 10 cents a litre. On one level the airport link has much appeal, but it is one line through one sector of Auckland and may be a hard sell for those stuck on suburban link roads throughout the city on non-peak times on weekdays and at weekends. It is hard to convince the commuter on Pakuranga Highway or Lincoln Rd, Henderson or Lake Rd Takapuna of the value of one line to the airport. Over time other Labour projects such as light rail and busways from yesterday may help those zones but the headline act yesterday was the airport.

The news of light rail (fancy trams) was about the extent of the detail offered by Ardern. Transport spokesman Phil Twyford filled in some gaps for the crowd but in reality they were there to see the new leader in action. She performed and was greeted like a rockstar. Jacindamania became Jacindamonium when the event finished. Selfies, babies and parents to hug, supporters to embrace. 

She hosted drinks at The Conservatory bar on North Wharf, inviting the crowd to attend but pointing out she couldn’t shout because it was illegal under the Electoral Act. After a walkabout involving vaguely deranged responses from devotees, the atmosphere in the bar was akin to a victory party.

Labour officials privately talked caution; there was a long way to go. They would be fearing this could be the storm before the calm.

But no one could argue with the electricity in the air or Ardern’s natural campaigning skills. Where Barack Obama deployed the hand-on-the-elbow-while-shaking-the-other-hand technique, Jacinda uses either a massive hug to those she knows well or a handshake and laughing smile that melted those being met for the first time.

Out at Papakura, there were no drinks and not many hugs. The sun had disappeared and as English arrived there were slow splotches of rain. Labour’s deputy leader Kelvin Davis had tried to diss English on television that morning by claiming he had the personality of a rock. All the portents were there for a comparative disaster.

But. But. The crowd included a pack of Blue Dragons, Asian New Zealanders for Bill, who weren’t going to let those white-shirted Let’s Do It cosmopolitans put them to shame. Collins beamed. English explained the event was at Papakura because he and his colleagues had been visiting a big housing development in the electorate and the government’s investments in housing and transport infrastructure went hand in hand. In the south, there would be huge growth in demand and supply of both. English said 21,000 houses were expected to be built soon in Drury, Paerata and Pukekohe.

Bill English smiles for a group photo at the Papakura rail station. Photo: Tim Murphy

Former Labour MP and minister and Papakura mayor George Hawkins watched on, with Auckland’s deputy mayor Bill Cashmore – from Pukekohe where the new electric line will reach – and councillors Daniel Newman and Dick Quax. 

English was, in a National Party kind of way, mobbed for selfies and team shots.

Where Labour had focused on light rail, most prominently to the airport, National’s announcement was on the electrification of 20km of track to Pukekohe, costing $130m and with work starting next year and the third ($100m) rail line easing freight and commuter train congestion between Westfield, at Otahuhu and Wiri. The total dollar value for those two projects plus improvements in Wellington came to $267m.

Labour is also committing to both the Pukekohe electrification and the third trunk line but these were asides at its rally. 

The government had anticipated Labour’s big event by telling the New Zealand Herald on Friday that it was also about to announce big plans for an alternate section of highway south through Alfriston towards Papakura, was looking at a busway for the northwestern motorway and would advance funding for the east Auckland AMETI busway project through to Howick.

Bridges, who once was Ardern’s counterpart on a young-guns’ segment on national television and must watch her generational ascent with interest, explained National’s approach accessibly and excitedly to the station audience. He said National had ‘confirmed to the Herald’ its wider programme and would come back to the public with details.

“We have invested more than any government in all of history in all of these forms of transport and we are going to keep on doing it.”

Both he and English ruled out a regional petrol tax to fund transport projects if National retained power. “That’s a real hit to their standard of living,” Bridges said and English added: “We can do the big projects and we do not have to hit Aucklanders so hard in their back pockets.”

He declared: “To those who have debated whether you do road or rail. We are committed to both, at a large scale.”

He did well. News media coverage of English over time might have lowered expectations to a point that he over-delivers at almost any public event. This close to an election that’s a reaction not to be sniffed at. (National’s campaign HQ decided, while English was on the platform, to tweet its response to Davis’  ‘rock’ taunt by proclaiming the party proud of the solidity of its rock as finance minister and PM). 

When the speeches were over English was, in a National Party kind of way, mobbed for selfies and team shots, by kids, parents and groupies. He did his arm-hanging best, at ease and seemingly interested in those who approached him. The only things missing were a train and a bar.

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

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