Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern might think she has a choice about whether or not to move Auckland’s used-car and container port to Marsden Point, but she does not.
Partly, that is because of politics. Ardern leads a coalition Government. During the election campaign, her deputy, Winston Peters, gave a “cast-iron commitment” that he would move car and container operations from the Ports of Auckland if NZ First was in a position of influence after the election. Since then, Peters, Shane Jones and NZ First have not wavered from that commitment. The port working group – including experts in logistics appointed by Labour and the Greens – has backed them up.
For Ardern to side against NZ First and instead with Phil Twyford – the last senior minister supporting the status quo – would be deeply insult her Deputy Prime Minister, the man who made her Prime Minister in the first place. She would have to say goodbye to NZ First cooperating with any clearly Labour initiatives in next year’s election year Budget.
But, in the end, politics has little to do with it. Peters’ “cast-iron commitment” wasn’t as bold as it sounded because the Auckland port is no longer viable at its current site.
According to the port company itself, it must expand or choke. Shipping lines say the port is on borrowed time, with perhaps as little as five years before it can no longer accept the most modern container ships. The port is spending hundreds of millions trying to stay viable. Most dramatically, it says it needs to dredge 2.5 million tonnes of the seabed from the Rangitoto Channel if giant new container ships are to be able to visit. Some experts say this will require explosives, although the port says it can be done “mechanically”. Either way, the destroyed seabed will then need to be dumped in precious fishing grounds near a Tuatara island sanctuary further out in the Hauraki Gulf, between Great Barrier Island and Coromandel Peninsula.
This is not acceptable to mana whenua and mana moana, Ngāti Whātua, who are also looking to buy some port land at market value – although most will stay in Auckland Council ownership – to develop it for Aucklanders and visitors. Dredging the Waitematā so the port can stay is not acceptable to anyone else either.
With the deadline for objections being just a week away on December 19, the dredging is likely to be vehemently opposed by Aucklanders, first through the planning process, then the courts, and then – if necessary – on the water. There must be no chance a Labour Government, let alone one propped up by the Greens, will allow the dredging to proceed, even if Phil Goff’s council agrees to it in the new year.
Goff’s position is pathetic. He was first elected on a platform of moving the port and still says he wants it to go. But he does nothing to lead a citywide conversation about how, when, and where, and what the waterfront should look like once the port is gone. He and Twyford just read out lines written by the port’s management and bleat about wanting someone else to write a “business case” for his own policy.
Instead, leadership has been left to Ngāti Whātua and the Stop Stealing Our Harbour lobby group, now called Waterfront 2029. Its campaign has been extraordinary, from getting first the endorsement of Helen Clark and Sir John Key to ensuring Aucklanders are aware of the issues through Facebook. The sometimes staid and conservative New Zealand Herald has also led on the issue, with a series by Simon Wilson, and an editorial saying a Government decision to close the port by 2029 would be the best Christmas present of all.
With Twyford still opposed, Ardern will need to make the call. Will she stand with the port management and the minister responsible for the Kiwibuild fiasco? Or will she stand with mana whenua and mana moana, the majority of Aucklanders, and the majority of the Cabinet? We may find out as soon as Thursday.