What was the first car you owned?
A brown Honda Civic. I was just out of university and my wife and I drove it into the ground! It was amazingly reliable and economical… we did close to 200,000km in it.
You entered Parliament in 2008, after a long period working internationally in the not-for-profit sector. What was the catalyst for coming back to New Zealand and getting into politics?
Years of being a campaigner convinced me that to achieve positive change in the world requires not only citizens who are willing to make their voices heard, it also requires political leaders who are willing to show courage to do the right thing. I looked at that and thought: “I could do that”. Coming back to New Zealand with my family, I had a strong impulse that I wanted to be part of making a better future. I love this country, and it’s given me amazing opportunities, so I feel a sense of obligation – our generation has to try to do the right thing for the next ones.
You’re in charge of both the Transport and Housing portfolios – what’s the benefit of bringing them together under a single minister?
The big question for us today is not ‘how do we fix housing?’ Or, ‘how do we fix transport?’ It’s ‘how do we build cities that work, that people want to live in, and that are economically prosperous?’ Transport’s so important because it’s really the big driver of urban form. We’re in a state of transition at the moment from the 1950s model for our cities – motorways, suburbs, three-bedroom, stand-alone homes – to a much more modern way of living. And that means a more diverse transport system. Driving’s always going to be the dominant way of getting around, but we need to provide choices.
The Government plans to raise fuel taxes to fund transport investment. Everyone wants the benefits of this, but many won’t be willing or able to pay. How do you manage that gap?
I don’t expect anyone to be dancing in the streets at the thought of paying more at the pump. But I think people understand that we have to be a bit bolder and a bit smarter about infrastructure in this country, and it doesn’t come for free. Saving lives on the road, getting trucks off the road through investing in rail, more investment in local roads and modern public transport in our cities – these things are worth having, and there’s no money tree at the bottom of the garden to pay for them.
What will your message be for Auckland motorists who, over the next few years, face worsening congestion and big disruption caused by rail construction, while also having to pay a regional fuel tax?
Help is on the way. We’ve now put a plan on the table that’s the first step in building a system that can cope with the volume of traffic, both by offering people a congestion-free public transport alternative, but also ensuring that rapid transit is there as a pressure valve in those peak hours, when congestion is at its worst. We have to demonstrate to people that we are committed to change, and that we are going to try and build our way out of this. The programme puts more money into public transport generally, and I think that will have real de-congestion benefits. As the rapid transit network builds, then you will start to see those benefits.
How seriously are you looking at congestion charging?
I’ve really moved on this. I think Labour’s moved. We always used to take the view that congestion charging’s regressive and it hurts low-income commuters. And it’s true that it does, but any charging system does, and the worst thing for low-income people is the absence of any transport choices. It seems to me to be inevitable that that’s the direction we’re moving in.
The Government intends to cut back spending on the sorts of highway projects we saw under National’s Roads of National Significance (RoNS) programme. Do you see any conflict between this and your regional development goals?
The RoNS of the National Party were not a regional development project. Almost all of the money was spent in the four largest cities – they were urban motorways. So reductions in state highway spending are not taking money out of the regions. Under our programme, every single region is going to get more money spent on it than it did for the last nine years. I see this as a re-balancing of the transport budget. We’re putting more money into local roads, local road maintenance, regional roads and state highway maintenance, and road policing. And in the main centres there will be a shift in priorities from the expressway projects into public transport. So I don’t see any contradiction at all with our regional development policy.
Reported by Barney Irvine for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue