Jacinda Ardern took to the Hutt on Thursday to make infrastructure announcements and highlight the Government’s performance on housing and Covid-19, Marc Daalder reports

There’s a long-running joke in Washington, D.C. about infrastructure week – seven days dedicated to bipartisan discussion on fixing the United States’ ageing roads and bridges, invariably blown to pieces halfway through by a controversial remark from Donald Trump.

In New Zealand, however, we’ve been in infrastructure week for the better part of a year – and this one’s real.

From January’s announcement of a $12 billion “New Zealand Upgrade” package to the reveal at the start of July of $2.6 billion for more than 150 projects across the country, the Government has been non-stop pumping cash into communities across the country.

That’s part of the pitch Labour will take to the electorate over the next seven weeks: this is the Government of infrastructure and we are the party of infrastructure. (It also doesn’t hurt that the sheer scale of funding the Government has brought to bear over the past seven months dwarfs New Zealand First’s own $1 billion a year Provincial Growth Fund.)

Jacinda Ardern reemphasised the infrastructure message at two new announcements in the Hutt on Thursday, one of a promise to match $27 million in council funding with an equal amount from central government to demolish and rebuild public pools in Naenae and another of $500 million to retrofit 1500 state houses.

“Projects like this – the Naenae olympic pool – and the redevelopment here will make a huge difference to the local community. Combined with new sports facilities in Upper Hutt, another $30 million investment that’s looking to create well over 250 jobs across this local community and leave behind a legacy of assets that will also make a difference for councils that have been working for some time the funding required to deliver these projects,” Ardern said in front of the Naenae complex on Thursday, after stopping by a nearby cafe for a coffee with Lower Hutt mayor Campbell Barry and local Labour MPs Ginny Andersen and Chris Hipkins.

Andersen’s bid for the Hutt South electorate seat is expected to be competitive. She lost the 2017 race by just 1540 votes to National’s Chris Bishop, after the seat’s longstanding Labour representative Trevor Mallard announced he would be a list-only candidate with an eye towards becoming Speaker of the House.

Uninvited to the morning tea was the Debt Monster, a fuzzy green ripoff of the Cookie Monster paid for by libertarian lobby group The Taxpayers’ Union, which has taken to stalking politicians on the campaign trail to agitate against big spending. The monster was not well-received – few took notice of the man in a suit parading back and forth outside the cafe for the better part of an hour, other than a dog tied to a nearby bicycle rack which growled when the poor individual inside got too close.

The Taxpayers’ Union’s Debt Monster was an uninvited guest. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The dog’s owner, meanwhile, was one of two dozen people squeezing into the cafe in an effort to grab a selfie with the Prime Minister. Ardern was mobbed by enough prospective selfie-takers that she was 20 minutes late to the next announcement, leaving the perennially early Associate Housing Minister Kris Faafoi waiting outside a nearby state house for half an hour.

On her arrival, Ardern and Faafoi took the opportunity to announce half a billion dollars in new funding to retrofit another 1500 state houses. Faafoi said that, over the next two decades, some 40,000 state houses will need similar reworking to ensure they remain warm and dry.

The money for the Naenae swimming complex and the upgraded public housing comes from neither the NZ First-inspired Provincial Growth Fund nor the $12 billion infrastructure pot announced in January. Instead, it was acquired as part of the $50 billion Covid-19 Relief and Recovery Fund (CRRF) revealed as part of Budget 2020 – affording Ardern a chance to highlight a second likely plank of her party’s election campaign, her response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking in the early afternoon at a packed community hall in Wainuiomata, Ardern – as she often has – borrowed from the words of a former prime minister and Labour icon.

“Norman Kirk once said that all anyone really needs is somewhere to live, something to do, someone to love and something to hope for,” she said.

Covid-19 forced people to return to those basics and that community effort was crucial to ensuring those needs were met.

“When we went into lockdown we stripped back so much of our lives and focused right in on the things that made the biggest difference, the things that were essential to us,” she said.

“We told everyone to stay home and that forced us to ask the question, what do you do if you don’t have one. And what lesson we learnt as a nation was that actually we do have the ability to house everyone, because we did.”

Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand must learn from the best of the lockdown. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Ardern praised social workers in the community who had played a vital role in completing that housing project.

The Wainuiomata community also came together to provide those in need with food and other aid, while central government bolstered those efforts with the wage subsidy, benefit boosts and doubling the winter energy payment.

“When it comes to someone to love, you might say government doesn’t have a role in that, and it’s true there is no such thing as government-supplied Tinder,” she quipped to gleeful peals of laughter.

“But actually, if we want to think about wellbeing, we do need everyone to feel like they’re connected and that they have someone they can turn to,” she said, before saying that the community did a good job of looking after those who might have been alone for lockdown.

“Now my hope is that we learned something from that,” she said.

“And that coming out of that phase, and whatever we move to in the future, we bring with us this lesson that if we get those basics right – if we make sure we’ve all got housing, we’ve all got something meaningful that means that we can have dignity and get food on the table, that we all have connection to community and one another, even if we are on our own – then we are well on our way to building a society that truly can stand with its head held high that we are looking after our most vulnerable, in good times and bad times.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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