Todd Niall – RNZ.
OPINION: The future of Auckland’s downtown port deserves careful and unemotive consideration – the problem is, it will become entangled in two elections in the next two years.
The big question is, should all or part of Ports of Auckland’s current operations go elsewhere, either to existing upper North Island ports, or to a brand new port?
Before the 2017 general election New Zealand First pledged to move the whole thing to Northland by 2027 – with the vehicle import trade gone this year.
A working group led by former Far North mayor Wayne Brown has finished an interim report after canvassing the views of major stakeholders on the futures of the three major upper North Island ports, but it has yet to go to cabinet, and is described as “non-decision-making.”.
A more substantial “final” report from the group is expected in September, a month before local body elections.
That is expected to be only the end of the beginning of the debate, signalling the investigations needed if the idea is to be pursued.
Those who were at an early meeting involving Brown and Auckland mayor Phil Goff, described the tone as “interesting”, and the pair clashed publicly even before that meeting.
Goff is navigating a tricky political path, having himself campaigned in 2016 on moving the car trade, and eventually the port, but now having to defend the interests of ratepayers who own Ports of Auckland through the council.
The mayor has quickly filed away a report he commissioned in 2017, hoped to show the economic argument for shifting the vehicle trade out of Auckland.
The report by NZIER in fact found the gain of reclaiming part of the waterfront to be $115 million, but the net cost of losing the trade to be around $1 billion.
If the Brown group report is delivered in the run-up to the local body elections it risks fuelling political posturing on an issue needing no urgent decisions.
Ports of Auckland is working to ensure it can do its job for another 30-40 years within its existing footprint, and even then no one knows what new technology, or trade patterns might extend that.
Automation of the container terminal alone will nearly double the capacity it has today.
Ugly though the port might be, it directly employs about 500 staff, pays $68m in wages, and chips a $51m annual profit into council coffers.
In short, it may never have to move, but there are arguments in favour of it doing so, and releasing prime waterfront land for more public enjoyment.
Any huffing and puffing this year over the port might pale against what could happen next year, as the parties in the coalition government return to their individual stances in the run-up to the general election.
NZ First will want to show progress on its 2017 pledge, with both leader Winston Peters and list MP Shane Jones – who oversees the port work – wanting to keep faith with their Northland supporters.
Labour’s influence in the cautiously worded work now underway suggests less enthusiasm for a rush to undertake the biggest infrastructure project the country has ever seen, in relocating all or part of a port, with the roading and rail links needed.