Opinion: Humpty Dumpty’s explanation to Alice in Alice in Wonderland that when he uses a word “it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more nor less” is being constantly validated as the election campaign heats up.

Last Sunday, the Minister of Finance told a television current affairs programme that because of the global economic situation “it’s not going to be possible to make big promises” this election round.

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However, about the same time he was solemnly intoning this warning to other political parties, the Prime Minister was announcing New Zealand’s biggest infrastructure project, a $45 billion plan to build two new tunnels, starting in 2029, followed by a separate light rail tunnel under Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour.

Neither batted an eyelid during their respective remarks, nor appeared to see any contradiction in what they were saying.

All this posturing across the political spectrum ducks the reality of the shocking state of our transport infrastructure at present

Yet the previous week, when National announced a near $25b road construction programme to be developed over 10 years, the Minister of Transport slated the plan as “breathtakingly misleading” and “poorly costed” in “the desperation to get a headline”. He claimed the plan was nearly $5b under-costed, despite the fact it was based on the latest publicly available figures, produced by his own government in 2021. He also questioned how the project could be afforded or funded.

But none of these questions seemed to apply in the case of the Waitematā tunnels, even though the Prime Minister’s announcement stressed that the $45b cost figure was still “indicative” and that detailed plans about how the project would be funded were yet to be finalised.

It seems that when Labour’s leaders make extraordinary spending promises, they expect them to be treated as fiscally responsible, bold, and visionary plans. This is notwithstanding that Labour’s credibility in delivering major transport changes is low. Its last big transport promise – Dame Jacinda Ardern’s pledge to have light rail running in Auckland by 2021 – has not even got to the business case stage yet. And both the major transport projects completed during the term of this government – Transmission Gully and the Wellsford to Puhoi highway – commenced construction during the time of the previous government.

None of the political parties has even started to paint the picture of what an ideal transport environment might look like, let alone develop policies that would begin a move in this direction

But when National announces big transport plans, Labour lambasts them as poorly costed and ill-thought-out. It argues National cannot be relied on to deliver results on big transport projects, whereas Labour, despite its woeful record, can. For its part, National still seems to be pathologically against light rail systems, despite the fact they are now commonplace in many cities around the world. Both shout past each other in the best Humpty Dumpty fashion, twisting their words to justify their prejudices.

However, all this posturing across the political spectrum ducks the reality of the shocking state of our transport infrastructure at present. Main roads are pockmarked with potholes; freight rail services are creaking; long-distance passenger services are virtually non-existent; urban roads are increasingly gridlocked, and public transport is inadequate and often unreliable.

Nothing seems to be happening to address any of these. No political party has so far proposed plans that do anything more than sweep lightly over the surface of the issues, yet all pour vitriol on anything their opponents suggest.

Transport is an example of the worst aspect of contemporary politics where politicians scrap and argue about what should be done, promoting plans that reflect their own vested interests, then blame each other when nothing happens, while the problems get worse. That is precisely the present situation, meaning little certainty can be attached to any of the plans any of the parties propose.

What is needed is a comprehensive, integrated approach, that sets out a staged and costed strategy focused on upgrading the nation’s highway network and reinvigorating freight and passenger inter-urban rail services. Both should be linked to a new coastal shipping infrastructure to maximise environmental gains and efficiencies, including meeting the challenges imposed by climate change.

More needs to be done to better facilitate passenger and freight movements within major population centres, through a combination of smart roads, tunnels, bridges, and sustainable, energy efficient public transport forms such as light rail to move people quickly and efficiently. Air services, and harbour and inter-island ferries, need to be integrated with these networks where possible.

Implementing such a plan would be hugely expensive and take many years to bring to fruition. It would require long-term political buy-in, and an across-the-board determination to stay the course until all the elements were in place. Sadly, it is inconceivable in the current political environment.

More sadly, though, none of the political parties has even started to paint the picture of what an ideal transport environment might look like, let alone develop policies that would begin a move in this direction. Instead, the country seems destined to endure more of the ongoing extraneous argument about each party’s “solutions” for the bits of the transport jigsaw that interest them, while the overall situation deteriorates further.

As the various parties sling their arrows about whether there should be road tunnels under the Waitematā Harbour, or through Mount Victoria, light rail in Auckland and Wellington, or more main highways, two certainties remain. First, the level of division between the parties means that almost certainly none of the projects being advanced so far are likely to ever see the light of day, within the time frames currently promoted by their proponents. And second, while the politicians argue about whose figures should be believed and whose should not, the problems they are purportedly seeking to resolve will simply get worse and become even more unaffordable than they are now.  

Good, sustainable, and efficient transport infrastructure is not some “nice to have” optional extra. It is a critical part of our national fabric, enabling, and helping all aspects of our society and economy to function properly. It therefore deserves to be treated far more seriously than the whipping boy current politicians have let it become.

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