Four young stars of Labour, National, Act and the Greens all agree on the mounting need for infrastructure investment in New Zealand – but where Shanan Halbert, Simeon Brown, Chlöe Swarbrick and Brooke van Velden disagree is just how to get there.
The four Auckland candidates engaged in robust debate at the University of Auckland’s Fale Pasifika on Friday evening.
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But while they covered a range of issues, from climate action to housing to transport, there was one central disagreement they kept coming back to: revenue.
It’s the central question behind so many political differences at the moment.
Candidates as ideologically opposed as Chloe Swarbrick and Simeon Brown agreed Auckland has an infrastructure deficit in need of remedy, as population growth puts strain on the roads, pipes and housing options of New Zealand’s biggest city.
Where they separate is how to pay for it.
One point of contention at the debate, hosted by Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy, was how to reduce congestion.
Both Brown and van Velden argued for the removal of fuel tax, which both would replace with congestion charging.
“One way that would work is to actually price roads correctly. I’d like to see us remove fuel user charge and introduce congestion charging,” van Velden said. “I think that would allow for more free-flowing traffic and people making conscious decisions about when they move around the city, and it works out, as that means not getting taxed more overall, but allowing it to be real-time cost to the user.”
She supported more capital investment into roads, but would use public-private partnership deals to get them done at pace and paid for by toll roads.
“The way that we get safer and more efficient roads built is to allow infrastructure companies to come in, build roads, and for us to toll them over time.”
She said people had understood the need for a harbour crossing for years, but politicians had been unwilling to put aside capital investment aside to pay for it – a problem she said can be overcome through deals with overseas private capital.
That’s not too dissimilar to National’s own transport policy, which promises a far-reaching set of motorways in the upper North Island and establish a new National Infrastructure Agency to find overseas financial backers for big projects.
Halbert was also behind a congestion charge – although he would keep the fuel tax in place, and questioned how parties that acknowledge the need for greater infrastructure investment would also make promises to cut those money-making avenues.
“Whatever the way we do it, any future government is going to have to generate revenue in order to invest in the infrastructure we need,” he said. “It’s just political to pull away the fuel tax because people don’t really like it, and just replace it with something else – and you’re proposing tax cuts, which means there’s even less money to invest in this.”
Van Velden said congestion charging was the right thing to do, but it was important to reduce other charges at the same time.
“People can’t have a double whammy… it’s very unaffordable at the moment.”
But if both major parties agreed on congestion charging, where is the bipartisan action to do something about it?
Brown said talks had broken down, blaming in part the revolving door of Labour transport ministers over the past few months.
Swarbrick took shots at both major parties’ road-heavy transport plans, and said the short-term answer to reducing congestion lay in reallocating road space.
“I find it quite mind-blowing that we seem to be stuck in this debate around light rail or no light rail and not how we can use the infrastructure we already have,” she said. “We could deploy to far greater efficacy buses along our main arterial routes if we were to reallocate road space.”
She said light rail should be above ground, which she said would be more quickly delivered and use less carbon.
She also pushed back against Brown and van Velden’s suggestion of new roads paid for by overseas private capital: “it’s not just induced congestion, it’s privatised induced congestion!”
Swarbrick said Labour’s rhetoric of transformation over the past six years hadn’t been matched by policies that tinkered around the edges, and this had led to many people losing faith in the state’s ability to effect change.
“But the only way that we are properly and meaningfully ever going to be able to meet those challenges is by gaining the requisite revenue to invest in meeting those challenges,” she said. “That means tax justice.”
She pointed to data from the Oxfam Aotearoa international inequality index, which placed New Zealand at 136th out of 161 countries on the fairness of wealth distribution.
But while tax reform is the Greens’ chosen weapon to meet the infrastructure problem, its not proven a popular tack with most other parties, with even Labour shooting down whispers of a wealth tax recently.
Brown fired back at Swarbrick that a wealth tax would see cashed-up New Zealanders fleeing across the Tasman, using the example of taxes in Norway spurring the rich to leave and prompting the government there to introduce an exit tax.
“The point is, you can have all of these dreams, but it ain’t going to work if you don’t have a productive economy where people can actually get a job, pay tax and get ahead,” Brown said.
“Pay tax only if you’re working and not if you’re accumulating wealth,” Swarbrick replied. “That’s the distortion that’s inside our tax system.”
Brown said the Greens would “push aspirational New Zealanders to Australia, and we would become a poorer country.”
Swarbrick countered that the policy aims to support aspirational New Zealanders from poorer financial backgrounds rather than just the wealthy.
There was spirited debate, with all four MPs showing clear passion for their solutions for the country being the correct option.
But what was surprising was the common ground.
Each of the candidates mentioned dismay at young people leaving the country.
It’s what got Swarbrick into politics in the first place – she said in her early 20s she witnessed friends leaving for cities with better public transport and more affordable housing, and wondered if the solution wasn’t to stick around and try and get those things for Auckland.
Van Velden said she knew many people going overseas at the moment.
“I want people in my generation to feel like they can stay in New Zealand,” she said, adding a feeling of “anxiousness and hopelessness” had descended on people due to law and order concerns.
All agreed mounting social issues were causing crime, and law and order had been a common issue across the campaigns.
Van Velden said a reduction in prison sentencing had led to people not feeling safe, and recounted instances like families scared to let kids go out to play and shopkeepers terrified of becoming ram-raiding targets.
Brown echoed that, saying a “firmer approach” was needed and police and the justice system needed to be able to proactively act on threats.
“We need to get our police back to being visible in our communities, they have been through Covid focused on too many other issues.”
Brown said the current government’s only policy on law and order had been to reduce the prison population.
“That unfortunately has meant the entire judicial system has geared towards not putting those who are a risk to society behind bars.”
Halbert said the law and order question was a tough one for Aucklanders, but rather than more prisons, an answer could be to expand the role of police to include more youth aid and mental health training.
“I ask my constituents when I’m presented with a 10 or 12-year-old in front of me, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to lock them up and send them to a boot camp, or do you want me to invest in them, their siblings and their family and attempt to get them on the right track? Normal humans will always come back to the latter.”
Crime would not be solved by locking more people up – an approach that in the past has seen record numbers of Māori and Pasifika in prison.
“Let’s think about… how we are going to get on top of this problem – it’s not going to be by locking people up. We’ve tried that, decades after decades. We’ve got to go back. Yes, there have to be consequences for those that offend, but anybody who did criminology with Tracey MacIntosh at this university knows that you’ve got to go back to rehabilitation and you’ve got to invest in people.”
Swarbrick said it was “acutely critical” politicians engage in evidence-based discussion when talking law and order.
“I find it frankly a grotesque exploitation of people’s fear to purport to solve this issue with solutions that are soundbites that the evidence for decades has shown will not work,” she said.
“This stuff is so obvious when you look at the data – we need to be investing in and improving people’s lives and we know that the longer people spend in prisons the more likely they are to reoffend.”
Surprisingly, she cited Brown’s own party, referring to former Prime Minister Bill English’s labelling of the prison system as a “moral and fiscal failure” and former justice minister Chester Borrows’ own work analysing the system.
“The police are straight up about the fact that they are responding to crime, they cannot deal with the avalanche of social issues that caused these problems in the first place,” she said. “If we want to be responsible politicians and policy-makers and, god forbid, frickin’ leaders, then we need to respond with evidence-based policy and interventions in all of those spaces.”
One example she gave was the lack of political will within parliament to enact policy to reduce alcohol harm, likely a reference to her own failed bill earlier this year to ban alcohol sponsorship and advertising in sports.
But she warned against fear-mongering from both politicians and journalists.
“For any media who are in this room, there is a responsibility here as well, because if you looked at the push notifications that are causing this anxiety, you’d think that we lived in a game of frickin’ Grand Theft Auto, not the third safest country in the OECD.”