Thursday, 27 February 2014

Prebble and McCarten

Rod Emerson's cartoon from the NZ Herald today.
The return of two old political battle axes - Richard Prebble and Matt McCarten - to the political fray this year will certainly make things more interesting.

Prebble is a tireless campaigner. But will he be tireless enough now to save Act, the party he lead for 8 years? He certainly brings some continuity and a much-needed credibility boost for the party which has languished since the demise of Rodney Hide.

The big question is whether Prebble's still got it in him. He probably does, but Act may be too far gone to be rescued, deal in Epsom or not. Look out for a strong campaign by Act, which might just get them back into parliament. Whether it leads to a long-term recovery is yet to be seen. There is certainly some disenchantment amongst economic purists on the right that the John Key led government has been a moderate, centre-right one, with an emphasis on the centre (and even some dalliances left). Witness Act's new leader Jamie Whyte's recent criticism that the government's share-offer plan wasn't the sort of full-blown privatisation Act wants. Is that enough though to differentiate the two parties? Time will tell.

Matt McCarten's appointment as Labour's chief of staff is a similar line call. McCarten is certainly to the hard left, and seeks a much more economically interventionist line from Labour. While some have speculated this is an indication David Cunliffe wants to take out his caucus rivals, I think McCaretn's appointment is more of an opening salvo aimed at the Greens. Remember, McCarten left Labour to go to NewLabour in '89 because he wanted the party to go back to its interventionist past. As the Alliance, which NewLabour formed a key part of, collapsed in the early 2000s McCarten moved through a succession of parties, until finally ending up again with Labour.

Given Cunliffe's recent comments that he thinks Labour could win in 2017 (implying he doesn't think they can in 2014) it stands to reason that McCarten's appointment is part of a wider strategy by Labour to take more of the left voters back off the Greens (particularly those who used to vote Labour under Helen Clark), and then shift them towards the centre, in the process taking back the precious centre ground National has held since John Key became leader. Again, like Prebble's appointment to Act, only time will tell if this strategy works...

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Rail upgrade: great news!

Two Matangi units. Photo from TVNZ.
Looks like blogging does have an impact... after I'd argued for upgrades to the track between Trentham and Upper Hutt the other day TVNZ reports today that:
...a second track laid between Trentham and Upper Hutt. Improvements are also planned for Upper Hutt and Plimmerton stations, and for the park and ride car parks on the Kapiti and Hutt Valley lines.
 Good. The track duplication will enable more regular train services, and as I wrote the other day, the stations at Taita and Upper Hutt have just been cleared for asbestos meaning they can be safely upgraded.

Of course this isn't really due to my blogging, but a decision made by Greater Wellington Regional Council to go ahead with plans they'd already drawn up. So it's pleasing to see an authority that follows through on its long-term plans... if only NZTA would pick up on that with the SH58 upgrade!

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Asbestos under control... time for an upgrade

Paraparaumu Railway Station being upgraded in 2011.
Picture from Better Transport.
Back in the day I used to regularly catch the train from Trentham to Petone and sometimes Waterloo. It's great to see how modern the system is now, thanks to upgrades to the network and some of the stations. It seems though that a few critical upgrades - to stations and trackwork - have yet to go ahead.

The Dom Post reports that Melling Railway Station has been cleared of asbestos. Parts of railway stations in Taita and Upper Hutt also tested positive for asbestos dust, but have been sealed off.

Since July 2011 the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) has had responsibility for the regions stations (except Wellington Railway Station, which is still owned by KiwiRail). GWRC also owns the rolling stock, while Tranz Metro runs the trains. As part of this acquisition a Regional Rail Plan was put together, which included some upgrades to stations and double-tracking the line from Trentham to Upper Hutt. This will mean more frequent rail commuter services can be run.

However it seems that Taita and Upper Hutt stations have missed out, and the double-tracking has yet to go ahead. Now that the asbestos issue has been resolved, it's time to get on with upgrading the stations.

Friday, 21 February 2014

"The biggest debt since Muldoon"

Recently Chris Hipkins claimed that the current government has run up "the biggest debt since Muldoon" referring to the size of the government's deficit. In terms of the absolute size of the debt, he's right. What the government owes today is significantly bigger than what the government owed in 1984 when Muldoon was voted out of office.

But in relative terms as a percentage of the economy, government debt has shrunk since then. Substantially. Here's a chart:

Source: Trading Economics
As you can see, debt was drifting downwards from the early 1990s, but ramped up again as a result of the recession and then Global Financial Crisis from 2007, and of course the Christchurch Earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. It's only recently that it's started to fall again.

While this isn't great news, it does refute the claim that the current government has run up the biggest debt since Muldoon.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Nation building: a good flag change poll

Kyle Lockwood's Silver Fern Flag.
David Farrar reports on a Fairfax poll taken on whether New Zealand should change its flag has found 42% of the 1,018 respondents favoured change, while 38% were opposed. The remainder didn't know or care either way.

This is a significant result to me - it shows that there has clearly been a shift from even a few years ago when opposition was much stronger. The Prime Minister comments:
“My instinct would be that more coverage would more strongly make the case for change. I take a lot of heart from the poll.”
John Key is absolutely right. The more issues of national identity are teased out and debated up and down the country from the dinner table to the pub, the more Kiwis get in behind change. This is because, in my view, there's a deep yearning for a united sense of national identity and purpose amongst New Zealanders that has been slowly growing. We're using more Te Reo Maori to describe Aotearoa than ever before, wearing classic Kiwi t-shirts and laughing at ourselves much more.

While issues like the design of the flag seem trivial, they activate important questions about ourselves and who we are as a country. We've come along way since becoming a British colony in 1840 with the Treaty of Waitangi. We've still got a long way to go though, especially with putting right the wrongs of the past. But we are making headway - and issues like the flag will continue to illicit passionate responses from New Zealanders on both sides of the debate.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

SH58: submissions

The proposed SH58 interchange with Transmission Gully:
why the SH58 upgrade needs to happen now.
NZTA is calling for feedback in its latest newsletter on the Petone - Grenada link road. Fair enough.

But the newsletter also has this to say about "Efficiency Improvements" on SH58:
This study looked at SH58 efficiency upgrades from the future Pauatahanui Interchange (created by Transmission Gully) to the Haywards intersection with SH2. Efficiency upgrades to SH58 are not a suitable alternative to the new Link Road as they would deliver significantly less transport and economic benefits. With the new Link Road in place there will be no need to consider efficiency improvements to SH58 for quite some time. There is, however, a need to improve the safety of SH58. We are currently investigating safety improvements with a range of possible options being considered, including guardrails, realigning the road, better road marking, median wire rope barriers and widening the road.
A few points to make here:
  1. The SH58 upgrades are not an alternative to building the Link Road. The only question is which project should go ahead first: the economic benefits of the Link Road must depend on traffic SH58 carries and could carry. While the NZTA is saying above that constructing the Link Road would allow them to delay improvements to SH58, the same must be true if the upgrades to SH58 were to go ahead before the Link Road.
  2. SH58 is the existing road that will connect the Hutt valley with Transmission Gully. Unless NZTA wants to close the road that will always be the case. Transmission Gully's construction is scheduled to start in September 2014 and due to be completed by 2020. The best case scenario for the Link Road being completed is by 2018, the latest three years after Transmission Gully opens. That means that in the scenario that the Link Road goes ahead first, the Hutt Valley will miss out
  3. Upgrading SH58 should therefore be the first project to go ahead. The road is in existence now. It is a major safety risk now. We should ask what the best return on our tax dollars is here - to me, it's clearly upgrading an existing road first and delaying building a new one until traffic justifies it.
The closing date for submissions to NZTA is 31 March. I'll be making my submission and posting it here.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

RIP Richard Van Der Linden

It's been reported that one of the fatalities in Tuesday's crash on SH58, which prompted my post below, was Richard Van Der Linden. I knew Richard, he went to the same high school as me before transferring to Upper Hutt College. I've been wrestling with whether I should take down my post below but decided that it was best to help promote the page that's been set up.

A couple of Richard's mates have created a Givealittle page called Koha for Jen. Jen is Richard's partner and is due to have their first child shortly. It's already raised over $7 grand.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Urgent upgrade to SH58 needed

SH58 junction with Transmission Gully, from NZTA
The Haywards Hill road (SH58) from Porirua to Upper Hutt used to be a daily commute for me. So the news yesterday of a major accident and tragically two fatalities on the Haywards brought back a lot of memories of near-misses and years of mucking around over upgrading the road. A quote from the DomPost really drove this home for me:
Mt Cecil resident Jo McCready said: "We are the ones who watch the helicopters land on SH58 and we are the ones who every time we watch our husbands or parents or children go out on that road feel ill when we hear the sirens.

There's been numerous injuries and fatalities over the years - a quick look back shows two cases of major injuries recently in October 2013, two people hospitalised in 2009 following another three-car pile up and a major crash which closed the road in October 2008. It's a dangerous road which is blacklisted by the NZTA.

With work on the long-awaited Transmission Gully route out of Wellington starting this year the need for upgrades to the Haywards has become even more urgent. Transmission Gully will increase the traffic on SH58 as it becomes a major link road for Hutt Valley and Wairarapa residents heading north.

As Upper Hutt Mayor Wayne Guppy said, stop-gap measures aren't whats needed here. Adding more safety barriers and speed restrictions is not going to make any difference. A major upgrade of the road is what's needed - and urgently. For both economic development and safety, only major upgrades can deliver a better road for residents on both sides of the hill.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Power prices report

One of the backgrounds of this years election will be the cost of electricity. The Government's mixed-ownership model will come under fire from the opposition, who will claim that it has increased the cost of electricity to consumers. The Electricity Authority has published a report comparing retail prices charged to consumers over the years.

Here's a summary of what the report finds:
The analysis shows that electricity prices were far below the actual cost of supply for many decades, and that current charges to consumers overall are almost in line with the historical cost of supply.
 In other words, Kiwi households having being paying less for their electricity than it costs to supply, while industrial consumers pay more. There's even a pretty graph to back that claim up:

What's interesting is that the retail charges when up significantly in the 70s, until 1980 when they gradually started to reduce again. So much for government ownership keeping power prices low. Interestingly power prices fell following the late 1990s reforms, but started to rise again in 2001/2002, peaking in 2009 before falling again.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Waitangi Day and nation building

Norman Kirk at Waitangi, 1973
Kia ora and a happy Waitangi Day 2014. Like most Kiwis I'm enjoying the day off and spending a bit of time

As with previous years there was a few scuffles and protests at Waitangi itself, but all and all the atmosphere has been peaceful and respectful. Not that you'd see that from the news media, outside of Maori TV. There tends to be a lot of highlighting of the 'negatives' while brushing over the posititves.

Earlier in the week we had a great example of this: A pointless row broke out over whether protestors had jostled the Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mataparae. This was apparently based on comments made by the Prime Minister John Key, who later pointed out that he was only going off what the media had told him (as it turns out, the truth was that there was a scuffle while Sir Jerry was in Te Ti Marae, but there was never any risk to him. Once again, a small incident was blown out of proportion.

But there is also wider celebrations going on around the country. There's plenty of positive examples - Ngati Whatua in Auckland holding a celebration at Bastion Point, which was once a major flashpoint and site of a prolonged land occupation. That's how far we've come.

There's still a long way to go though. I'm happy to put partisanship aside and say that Labour's re-discovery of Norman Kirk (above) and his legacy is a welcome development. Kirk's nation building was his most significant legacy - he really created the modern Waitangi Day. I hope everyone can capture that spirit for the 175th anniversary of our nation's foundation.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

KiwiRail and ports

A MetroPort Tauranga-Auckland container service.
Photo by John Andrew Russell
One of my major areas of interest is transport policy. This is mainly because , as some people know, I'm a bit of a railfan. Unlike many in the railfan community though, I take a fairly commercial view of our rail services - they need to be viable and stand on their own feet. They need to be integrated with the road freight network. Generally, trucks are better at handling less-than-capacity, short haul and time sensitive freight, while rail is better at long distance, heavy and bulk freight (think coal, logs, wood products, fertiliser, milk, etc). There's pretty limited potential in New Zealand for long-distance passenger trains, and I've often thought too much effort and resources have been put into them.

That said, we don't really have a free market for freight transport in New Zealand, and freight being the major revenue stream for rail transport in New Zealand, that puts KiwiRail at a major disadvantage to its competitors.The Government's policy towards KiwiRail reflects this - they've made a major injection of $750m ($250m per annum) into KiwiRail over the past three years. Most of this money has been spent on new locomotives, rolling stock and upgrading infrastructure. This is paying dividends not just in revenue growth, but also in terms of net tonne kilometers (NTKs) of freight carried by KiwiRail.

Looking ahead, this paper on Vote Transport 2013/14 makes for interesting reading. The focus of KiwiRail is to be on "enhancing New Zealand's export competitiveness" by reducing the costs of getting our products to market. This also enables greater flexibility in supply chains. As an example, the Ports of Auckland strike in 2011 resulted in a major shift of volumes from Auckland to Tauranga, helped greatly by the "MetroPort" services (pictured above):
The dramatic shift in volumes exported and imported over Tauranga is a result of the late 2011 strike at Ports of Auckland in which rail played an instrumental role in diverting import and export cargo via Tauranga and other ports. In response to the initial strike notice and subsequent lock out, KiwiRail implemented eight extra trains to bring containers to Auckland from ships diverted to other ports. Mark Cairns, Port of Tauranga Chief Executive, reported “At short notice, it (KiwiRail) stepped up increasing services from MetroPort in Auckland to Sulphur Point from four to six trains per day giving us capacity of up to 636 TEUs per day each way. It continues to offer this service.” As a consequence of this event, Maersk have altered their NZ port rotations with greater emphasis on Tauranga. This would not have been possible without the ability to utilise rail and Port of Tauranga’s Metroport facility to transfer import and export cargo to and from metropolitan Auckland.
Combined with larger ships coming to New Zealand, KiwiRail is well placed for growth because of port consolidation (i.e. major shipping lines not stopping at smaller ports such as Timaru and New Plymouth) meaning that more freight is being carried over longer distances to ports. The paper makes an interesting prediction:
New Zealand will only benefit from the trend to bigger ships with an efficient national rail network enabling aggregation on one or two major ports
One or two major ports would be a major aggregation of our ports. It would mean many of the current smaller ports would be reduced in size and scale, and specialise. Others, such as Timaru's PrimePort, may grow: Port of Tauranga recently bought 50% of PrimePort and are going to establish another rail-served "inland port" in Rolleston, south of Christchurch, which is similar to the MetroPort service. Their aim is clearly to compete with Lyttellton. Ports of Auckland are also more and more constrained in how much they can grow, largely thanks to their owners (Auckland Council) blocking their expansion plans.

This is good news for KiwiRail - although perhaps not so much for the shareholders in the regional ports.