How did you learn to drive?
I learned on a farm. I didn’t get my licence until I was a university student, but I grew up driving tractors. My father was incredibly displeased with my driving because I got the tractor stuck on a regular basis. One time I crashed into the side of the cowshed and snapped the bumper on the front of our 414 International tractor. These were the days before anti-smacking legislation…
What was your first car?
The first car I had was a Valiant. In the summer of 1980, I used it to drive from Awanui to Wellington, after I’d got married as a young father and I was a student at Victoria University. It got a lot of use among the students in the Māori Club at Victoria University, I can assure you.
Most media coverage around you is focussed on the Provincial Growth Fund, but you are an Associate Minister of Transport as well; what do you want to achieve in that role?
I feel it’s important that I constantly remind the independent New Zealand Transport Authority that they must give suitable weighting to regional roads and regional connectivity. I know they’ve got a limited amount of dough, but there are huge productivity gains in the regions to be captured – whether it’s tourism, freight, or logistics. And we should constantly be looking to shave off the most egregious features of our provincial roading network. I’m a great supporter of coastal shipping and New Zealand First is seriously behind the rehabilitation of KiwiRail. We accept it’s going to be an expensive journey, but we see great positive gains for New Zealand Transport Inc. through rehabilitating rail.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges in New Zealand in terms of transport?
Well, the first challenge is the massive fiscal suck that metropolitan New Zealand, in particular Auckland, represents. It has a huge population base, there’s a great amount – somewhere between 33%-40% – of our GDP tied up there. How we adequately fund those growth pressures is going to be a challenge for any Government. One of the responses is to incentivise people to move into the regions. That takes us to the quality of regional infrastructure, which is a key feature of quality of life.
You mentioned that you saw a lot of potential or merit in looking to shift people out of Auckland. Can you talk a bit more about your view there?
The land around Marsden Point, Whangārei, is a lot cheaper (than Auckland). If we can improve the productivity of that port, then there’s no reason why more businesses couldn’t relocate there. And that would help stimulate that region. Considering the cost of living for the average punter going up there, either as a business owner, a professional or a labourer, they’re getting better bang for their buck. I know there are similar aspirations for other places, for example Gisborne. The challenge there is to make sure our roading budgets give enough confidence and place enough emphasis on the capital upgrade needs of the East Coast and Gisborne infrastructure.
What do you see as specific transport issues for regional New Zealand?
Each region has its own challenges. I think that on the West Coast there is a case for improving the rail tourism options. I think for areas such as Bay of Plenty and Tauranga we need to invest in rail infrastructure in small industrial hubs outside of Tauranga and take trucks off the road. In respect to areas where we could use coastal shipping more, then the challenge is how the crown justifies making funds available.
Ensuring secondary school students learn to drive was both New Zealand First and Labour policy before the election. What can we expect to see in that area?
We’ve left that with Kelvin Davis as the Associate Education Minister, but I can answer the question as a New Zealand First politician. We’re still promoting and agitating for training packages that enable our rural families to get their kids dressed up well for driving. I’m really persuaded by the cops when they say their first point of contact with men and women who end up in a world of criminality, is (due to) fines they can’t pay or licences they don’t have. We haven’t lost sight of it but, without sounding tedious, not every perceivable ill can be cured in one budget. We’ve got a series of budgets to go through.
There have been some highway projects that have been sent back for re-evaluation in regions around New Zealand and some people in those regions want to see those projects go ahead. They’re nervous they might not happen with this Government. What would you say to those people?
Let me talk about my own area. They are not ‘nervous’, they are foul- tempered. They have not restrained themselves in expressing their rage about me not backing the four-laning of Pūhoi to Whangārei. I think what they fear is not actually what’s going to happen. But we have $45 billion over 10 years (in transport funding) and Governments have to make choices. I don’t think in the short-to-medium term it’s unreasonable that we take off the most egregious features of that State Highway 1. No-one understands more than I do what a pig of a road it is to drive up. But this is an MMP coalition Government and not everything that my party would like to see come to pass necessarily comes to pass. So the four-laning speaks to a deeper problem. How do we create a pipeline of all infrastructure projects that’s suitably funded? Because, as I say to those cheerleaders of the four-lane highway to Whangārei, the rhetoric may have been strong from the last Government, but nowhere in the Crown accounts was it actually funded.
Reported by Dylan Thomsen for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue