Sunday, September 20, 2020

Is the public bankrolling Labour's bid to reclaim Wairarapa? It certainly looks that way

Jacinda Ardern spent Friday campaigning in the Wairarapa. Labour is targeting the National-held seat and is confident it can win.

The party’s candidate, list MP Kieran McAnulty, is an ambitious, energetic local with a high profile. In 2017 he got within 3000 votes of the sitting MP, the lacklustre Alastair Scott, and this time he faces a first-time National candidate, farmer Mike Butterick, who is not well known.

Although it’s essentially a rural electorate, Wairarapa has been held by Labour before – most recently by Georgina Beyer from 1999 till 2005 – and an influx of new residents, many of them from the Labour stronghold of Wellington, could help tilt the scales in Labour’s favour.

Ardern’s charm offensive on Friday gives context to the otherwise puzzling announcement in July that the government will invest $10 million in an upgrading of Masterton’s Hood aerodrome, a facility currently used mainly by topdressing planes and recreational flyers. That sum will be augmented with a multi-million-dollar contribution from Masterton District Council. (I say multi-million because the actual sum isn't clear. Council chief executive Kath Ross told the Wairarapa Times-Age in July that the council would contribute $7 million, but information subsequently released to me by her office indicates the actual commitment will be $4.2 million, with an additional $2.75 million to be sought in the form of "grants, fees, charges and co-investment". Make of that what you will.)

The announcement of the Hood upgrade came out of the blue and makes sense only when seen as an enticement to vote Labour. In other words, it’s a prime example of the old-fashioned pork-barrel politics most of us thought had been consigned to history decades ago.

The entire process behind the government’s decision to fund the upgrade, and the buy-in by the district council, has been strikingly opaque. It’s not clear where the initiative came from and no substantive business case or cost-benefit analysis has been made public. The probable reason is that none exists.  

Masterton ratepayers have seen nothing to indicate the upgraded aerodrome will generate an economic return and thus justify the investment of ratepayers’ money that might be better spent on other services or facilities. As I pointed out on this blog in July, not one of the various cheerleaders for the project – neither McAnulty, Grant Robertson (who announced it), Ron Mark nor Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson – has identified a single new user of the upgraded aerodrome.

Scheduled air services in and out of Masterton have been tried twice in the past 20 years. In both cases they were abandoned because they made no money.

In an attempt to establish the economic rationale (assuming there is one) behind the Hood project, I twice sought information from Masterton District Council under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. The responses added little to what was already known, reinforcing my suspicion that both the government and council have committed public money to the upgrade based on airy assumptions that are not backed by any substantive business case.

Among other things, the council provided me (but only after I approached them a second time, after a totally inadequate response to my first request) with a poorly written “executive summary”, of anonymous authorship, that was heavy on positive-sounding buzzwords but had all the substance of candy floss.

The documents fail to reveal who will use the improved aerodrome/airport or where the projected financial returns, assuming there are any, will come from. The projections rely heavily on the hope that scheduled air services will resume – but there’s no indication that any airline is eagerly waiting for Hood to be improved, and nothing to suggest that upgrading the aerodrome will magically make it profitable.

Perhaps most disturbingly, there’s nothing to indicate that Masterton district councillors subjected the project to any rigorous analysis or even detailed discussion. No minutes, no formal resolutions: zilch.

I can only repeat what I wrote on this blog on July 20: in the absence of any compelling case for the upgrade, we’re left with no other conclusion than that it’s a brazen vote-buying exercise - one that Masterton ratepayers have been suckered into subsidising by a council that displays little regard for responsible financial stewardship and even less for transparency.


Odysseus said...

No surprises here Karl. The Coalition early on shelved any plans to deal with the region's serious infrastructure deficit and even abandoned its key policy platforms such as "Kiwibuild" and Auckland Light Rail (for which an additional fuel tax is still being levied) in favour of the pork barrel approach. While Wellington remains mired in congestion and LGWM has become a sad joke, billions of taxpayers' funds are being sprayed around on incoherent and uneconomic politically motivated indulgences. But according to the polls such frippery appeals to New Zealanders these days.

David George said...

Pales into insignificance when compared with NZF's pork barrel efforts to get Shane Jones elected here in Northland.
Some grim pleasure in seeing him languishing in a distant third place however.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Karl, you wrote "Is the public bankrolling Labour's bid to reclaim Wairarapa? It certainly looks that way"
"Jacinda Ardern spent Friday campaigning in the Wairarapa. Labour is targeting the National-held seat and is confident it can win".

On Friday the Prime Minister was here in Pahiatua officiating at an invitation only event, opening the towns new $3.9 million water treatment plant. On the outside looking in, the event had all the hall marks of a whistle stop break for the Barnstorming Labour Party Election Roadshow. While our Mayor, Tracey Collis stood in the background, the PM and her entourage made the most of the photo opportunities before waving goodbye and heading off into the sunset. (Little joke, it was actually pouring with rain).
For me, something which should have been special, was cheapened by the inclusion of party political posturing.

You described our MP as "lacklustre Alistair Scott". While I am in no way a flag waver for the National Party, MP Scott produced the goods when my wife and I approached Alistair with a concern we had over the stonewalling bureaucracy the A.C.C engaged in to frustrate a legitimate complaint we had raised.
Within 2 weeks the matter had been resolved and 2 senior managers had flown from Auckland and Wellington to meet with my wife and I, to offer us sincere apologies for an incident which should never have happened. My wife and I have nothing but the upmost respect for Alister Scott and his electorate secretaries.

Karl du Fresne said...

Mark, I base my assessment of Alastair Scott on what's publicly visible. I accept that he may have done good work of which I'm not aware.

hughvane said...

Discounting the first twenty years of my life when political behaviour was of little interest, I have never in the succeeding fifty years seen as much election bribery as in 2020. It says one of or both things:
1. Labour - and by implication a Coalition, despite what's being opined about a single party government - knows exactly how to woo and win NZ'ers, never mind the downstream consequences, and
2. NZ'ers (in general) are suckers for punishment.

Max Ritchie said...

Election bribery: surely the champion is Helen Clark and her no-interest student loans? The current examples (this airport upgrade, NZ First’s PGF aka slush fund) are outrageous but not quite as egregious (close though).