Key trumped Cabinet to push $10b transport plan

TRACY WATKINS AND VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 30/06/2013

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Prime Minister John Key rode over some Cabinet doubters to throw his support behind Auckland's ambitious transport plans - a move that clearly signals how fierce the battle will be for Auckland votes in next year's election.

National insiders say their polling shows Labour is bleeding votes among blue-collar workers and the mortgage belt in areas such as West Auckland, seen as critical swinging-voter territory.

Labour and the Greens have been staunch backers of Auckland Mayor Len Brown's push for an inner-city rail link and the Government's about-face pulls the rug from under them politically.

The move also recognises that with Brown seen as certain to win the upcoming mayoral race, the Government had little option but to embrace his rail vision or become embroiled in a standoff with him that would have bled over into the general election and a theme that National was ignoring Auckland.

The $10 billion package announced last week includes the rail link, a tunnel for a second harbour crossing, and other motorway upgrades.

Key admits some central Cabinet members had voiced scepticism about the inner-city rail link, but said the Government backing of the transport package was about having a vision for the country's biggest city.

"There's certainly a range of views, and there will still be some people that will say maybe we should build the east-west link before the CBD rail link, but I had a growing sense over time that, actually, all these projects need to be built.

"Politicians are often criticised for not having vision. I have a vision for Auckland. I've copped a lot of flak along the way on things like the SkyCity convention centre, but in my view, it fits in with the vision."

The other two crucial components of that vision were ultra-fast broadband and transport infrastructure.

"People will look back at these things... and say they were the right things to do."

It is understood the Government's change of heart has also been driven by other factors, including the improving economic outlook.

At the same time, the end of several large Auckland projects, such as the Waterview tunnel and Newmarket viaduct is in sight.

The money being poured into Christchurch was also a likely consideration. National strategists would have taken into account the likely push back from Aucklanders as the Government pours billions of dollars into earthquake reconstruction.

But National also wants to underscore the divide between itself and Labour, which has got itself bogged down in political squabbles about Peter Dunne and beefed-up surveillance powers for the Government Communications Security Bureau.

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Key insists, however, that the decision about Auckland's transport plans was always a case of "when, not if".

"There was actually a consensus view... despite some of the comments our guys have made... we've always been in the camp that it will eventually happen."

And he has support from Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker, who said regional New Zealand needed to accept that Auckland was the focal point of the country and the place that needed the most funding right now.

"What is being done in Auckland has to be done. It will be sustaining other parts of New Zealand through its economic growth," Parker said.

But other mayors believe their cities' needs are being ignored and that investment in the regions has the potential to release the pressure on the country's larger centres.

"There is need for central government funding in different parts of the country just as much as there is in Auckland," Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said.

"It reinforces regional economies and takes the pressure off places like Auckland and Christchurch, which are struggling to cope with their growth."

What was good for New Zealand was worth supporting, but Wellington could do a lot with $10b, the city's mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, said.

"Transport infrastructure is part of a successful country, but we need investment in education, housing and emergency management are equally important," she said.

- Sunday Star Times

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