So here is the first part of our take on the local government elections, Christchurch being the main focus for this first part. It was pleasing to see Justin Lester tipped out in Wellington because he campaigned on taking control of public transport there. However that is only a small consolation because the Government has bent over backwards to make it much easier for public transport around the country to be seized off regional councils by territorial councils. This is actively being sought in both Christchurch and Dunedin. It is all smoke and mirrors because the main obstacle to improving public transport, which the mayors of both cities have been lobbying on for decades, is the amount of subsidies that either local or central government are able to put into the operation of routes. The current level of funding requires that fares make up at least 50% of the running costs of bus services and has not been changed in 10 years, meaning the Labour Government has not addressed this issue in almost 3 years in office.
The fact is that Lianne Dalziel the Mayor of Christchurch who is a master at political scheming and manipulation, a very formidable political campaigner who was seriously underestimated by the unsuccessful challenger Daryll Park, almost as soon as she was elected into the job the first time, lobbied Ecan for a Joint Public Transport Committee and has spent the past two terms wearing down the opposition from Ecan councillors by haranging them at great length about essentially how useless they are at running public transport and how it should be taken over by the city council. The next step was a joint approach last term with Steve Lowndes, Ecan chairman and a fellow Labour member, to the Government, claiming that a Bill amending the Local Government Act was intended to facilitate the transfer of services between councils. The Bill in question that National introduced was nothing of the kind; it envisaged transport being moved into multi-agency CCOs which may have been intended to have a similar scope as Auckland Transport has in Auckland. Since Labour took over the Bill they have pushed through major amendments including gutting all of the CCO provisions and adding the actual transfer functions with amendments into the Land Transport Management Act and related legislation that was never in the original Bill. The result is to make it much easier for these services to be transferred. This amounts to about all that the Labour government has done for public transport during its first term of office and apparently this is the most important priority for them – that their role is to be an enabler for their members who are local government politicians first and foremost. This would have to be a very corrupt policy from central government if that proves to be the case.
The latest claims from Dalziel claim a fully integrated public transport system across Christchurch, Waimakariri and Selwyn will result, and she went further during the election campaign by saying CCC should actually be running all of the services itself, that is, they should own all of the buses and employ all the drivers, cutting out the use of bus companies that are presently contracted to run the services. This has been the end goal for CCC ever since they bought Red Bus off the Christchurch Transport Board back in the 1990s, but CCC has never administered or operated public transport services in Christchurch at any previous time because we have always had regionalised services due to them crossing territorial boundaries. That will not change and makes regionalising important. Also it is very unclear what a “fully integrated public transport” system actually is. At the present time, regional and territorial council staff already work closely together to deliver public transport services in the city, making such claims essentially meaningless.
The problem is that for a political schemer like Dalziel, making it easy for people to live outside the City boundaries, by having public transport services go into Selwyn and Waimakariri and give people in those regions an easy way of getting into the CBD, is contrary to her political interests as the City’s mayor. There has been a similar negative reaction to the development of the Christchurch Northern Corridor in enabling people to drive easily to Christchurch from residential communities further north, and by implication in the south. There is already enough debate in the City about the merits of of the Mayor’s push for the central business district to be the most dominant part of Christchurch, without bringing in the possibility that people living outside the city entirely could have as easy a level of access to the CBD as its own residents, without paying any rates. This is one key reason why the Joint Public Transport Committee has been dominated by the Mayor’s campaign for control of public transport, and why it has failed to consider heavy rail as a possible option for public transport in the city. However, equally concerning has been the Government’s attitude to the development of rail commuter services in the City, in which despite an election campaign promise of up to $100 million in funding, it was handed over entirely to local bodies to make the case for the service to be developed. Apart from the fact that the chosen Rolleston rail corridor is very hard to intensify, CCC for the reasons outlined above is the not the slightest bit in favour of a rail passenger service going outside its boundaries.
The agenda for public transport development for the past three years since a Labour Government was elected has gone entirely into political ideology over enabling local government politicians with greater control over services that run in their areas and leaving them to it. Mike Williams, the former president of the Labour Party, has made it clear he supports the call by Phil Goff, a former Labour Party leader and current mayor of Auckland, for reform of the structure of the Auckland Transport CCO. Giving greater power over the CCO to the elected politicians of Auckland Council is almost certain to result in its public transport development programme being severely curtailed in years to come, as road transport is the dominant preference of ratepayers in practically every city in New Zealand. Wellington will then simply say they are facilitating more democratic control by local politicians, when in reality local governance is so weak and corrupt that it disenfranchises a significant chunk of its electors. Williams also claims that the Auckland structures are the reason for the low electoral turnout in the City despite this being a nationwide trend. The Government has further cemented the view that they are entirely out of touch with reality by saying that electronic voting will be the saviour.
Well having looked at where Christchurch City will go in relation to public transport, we’ll have a look at other considerations in the second part of this series.