dave November 25, 2019 No Comments

Please note – Cubic does not support Mr Jones’ comments, or the proposal to move the port to Northport.

Shane Jones has called the Port of Auckland’s CEO a ‘cowardly renegade’ over the Port’s lobbying against New Zealand First’s plan to shift the port to Northland. Dileepa Fonseka also reports on the pros and cons of instead building a mega-port in the Firth of Thames.

Trucking industry leaders, infrastructure planners and port operators want an evidence-based debate on the upper North Island’s port strategy and are concerned the official study has focused on New Zealand First’s preferred option of moving the Port of Auckland to Northland. Instead, they want the idea of a new ‘greenfields’ port at the Firth of Thames considered for the long-term. 

Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson told Newsroom New Zealand Inc should consider a new “mega-port” if it truly believes Auckland is not big enough to handle future freight growth.

But Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones is having none of it, and has instead ramped up his personal attacks on Gibson and threatened to take his complaints to Gibson’s board.

“To privatise the Firth of Thames and build a Singaporean-style port out there you need the mandate of the people,” Jones told Newsroom.

“The Ports of Auckland can’t even get a mandate from the majority of Auckland’s,” he said.

Singapore Port: Jones says a “Singaporean-style” port in the Firth of Thames isn’t feasible. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Gibson said he wanted to correct “mistruths” in the port debate.

“What we’ve advocated all along is as New Zealanders, as New Zealand Inc, we want the most cost-effective productive supply chain – and that’s not Northland.”

A number of economists and consultants, some commissioned by Ports of Auckland (POAL), have questioned the conclusion of an Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (UNISCS) report making its way through cabinet. 

“If the evidence is there and you follow the process that is best practice then we would absolutely support good well-founded investment decisions.”

The report concludes the government should get POAL to give up its central city port site and invest close to $10 billion prepping Northport to take its place.

Road Transport Chief Executive Nick Leggett thinks the working group asked the wrong question with its study and said the Northport move was a “solution looking for a problem”, while Infometrics economist Brad Olsen believed the port debate showed the need for an overall infrastructure strategy with less “cherry-picking” of individual projects. 

But Infrastructure NZ CEO Paul Blair, who questions the analysis in the port report, said Northport was “the better of the options on a prima facie basis”.

“If the evidence is there and you follow the process that is best practice then we would absolutely support good well-founded investment decisions.”

Mega port versus Northport

In a world of 3D printing and sensitivity around emissions Gibson said there was every possibility freight loads would experience low growth.

New Zealand needed to plan for a number of “freight futures,” including one where its freight load increased. 

In such a scenario he said the option of building a “mega port” in the Firth of Thames could fill that gap – in 30 or 40 years time. 

“We need to take a much, much longer-term approach.”

Nick Leggett says New Zealand too quickly jumps to specific projects before asking what’s needed. Photo: John Sefton

A Firth of Thames port would be located close to Auckland – the port’s consumers – and not that different to the Northport option in cost, Gibson said.

It’s a view at odds with UNISCS chairman Wayne Brown’s own view. He said the latest report had examined the Firth of Thames option, but found too many infrastructure costs associated with it.

“This is why New Zealand gets caught in this infrastructure predicament because we jump to specifics and locations and projects before we ask what’s needed.”

Jones agreed and said a “Singaporean-style” mega port in the Firth of Thames would need a much larger government investment than Northport would. 

However, Jones said he accepted concerns Twyford and Robertson had raised that more analysis than UNISCS’ current set of reports were needed.

“We’ve got at least a year to do that.”

Leggett questioned whether a port move in either direction was needed at all.

“This is why New Zealand gets caught in this infrastructure predicament because we jump to specifics and locations and projects before we ask what’s needed.”

Even rail upgrades to Northport – which Brown said should go ahead immediately – might not be justified if you looked at the greatest rail infrastructure needs of New Zealand as a whole, Leggett said.

“I don’t think this is where you would start that, you would be improving the main [rail] trunk line between Auckland and Wellington.”

War of words

Jones accused Gibson of being an “anti-NZ First CEO” who had gone “totally renegade” with his actions around the port study.

“When our caucus meets I will seek their mandate to demand an explanation from their [POAL’s] board as to why they have mandated this recreant to show such animus towards New Zealand First,” he said.

A ‘recreant’ is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as someone who is cowardly or a deserter.

Leggett said there wasn’t a place for “threats or intimidation” in an infrastructure debate:

“It flies in the face of what is needed: evidence, data and asking what’s best for the greatest number of people.”

“What I explained was I’m not entering a political debate, I’m entering a practical debate.”

The stoush started at a meeting in Minister Grant Robertson’s office last week where Jones warned Gibson off venturing into politics.

Gibson said that meeting began with him asking why there were differences between conclusions reached from a first Ernst & Young report – which had ranked Northport 12th – and moved on to allegations from Gibson that UNISCS had moved away from its terms of reference. 

“What I explained was I’m not entering a political debate, I’m entering a practical debate.”

Gibson said the UNISCS was a “missed opportunity” to look at the supply chain as a whole. 

“I can’t understand why this recreant would believe that our Cabinet ministers wouldn’t skilfully work through these unresolved issues.”

“What NZ Inc deserves is a supply chain and a supply chain based on cold, hard facts based on a proper business case,” he said. 

Jones said it was always understood that more work would need to be done on the reports making their way through cabinet. 

“I can’t understand why this recreant would believe that our Cabinet ministers wouldn’t skilfully work through these unresolved issues.”

“Those are decisions made by politicians they’re not made by unelected renegade CEOs.”

Olsen said infrastructure decisions for the nation should fall somewhere between a purely technical analysis and a political call.

This was especially true in the ports debate where he said you could “make the numbers talk whichever way you want” at this stage.

“I don’t think we can have a purely technically-driven evaluation of infrastructure…where the balance needs to be is that we need to be able to pick ideas that are well integrated,” Olsen said.

“At the end of the day the public have charged politicians with the ability to spend public money.”

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