Comment: Fact checking the nonsense around Labour's fuel tax hike

Author
Simon Wilson, NZ Herald,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Saturday, 7 April 2018, 4:02p.m.
Labour's transport plan met with a roar of disaproval. But it was was clearly signposted and should have surprised no one. (Photo / NZ Herald)
Labour's transport plan met with a roar of disaproval. But it was was clearly signposted and should have surprised no one. (Photo / NZ Herald)

Labour's transport plan met with a roar of disaproval. But it was clearly signposted and should have surprised no one.

1. There's a difference between a tax and an excise.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has argued this in Parliament and in various media, but it's nonsense. Excise is another word for tax.

2. Raising the fuel excise does not count as a new tax.

In the 2017 election campaign Ardern promised no new taxes, and critics say this breaks that promise. Ardern says no. She argues that because the existing fuel tax has gone up by a few percentage points a litre most years, raising it in 2018 and beyond isn't new.

The critics are right: a tax hike is a tax hike, whether or not it's expected. Besides, although it's likely a National government would have continued to raise the fuel tax, as it did in most years of its last term, we don't know if that's true.

3. The government is giving up on the regions.

National's leader Simon Bridges and his transport spokesperson Jami-Lee Ross have both argued this in Parliament and to various media. Ross also says the government is "taking money from the regions to give to Auckland's trams". Commentator Matthew Hooton says the regions are having their roads neglected.

In fact, over 10 years Labour plans to spend $530 million on regional improvements, to National's $425 million. It will spend $2.1 billion on state highway maintenance, to National's $1.98 billion.

It's true National would have spent more on state highway improvements: $4.6 billion to Labour's $3.85 billion. But that's because of its proposed new "Roads of National Significance" (RONS), most of which did not have a sound business case.

The government also has new funding still to announce for rail, which will target the regions, and it has that $1 billion a year regional economic development fund. It's absurd to say Labour is giving up on the regions.

4. The government hates cars and it hates people in cars too.

NewstalkZB's Mike Hosking said this. Perhaps he wasn't being entirely serious, but he did say it.

What are the circumstances in which that might be true? Having a law to stop you driving? Taking away all the cars? Ensuring the roads are so congested that it's pointless even to attempt to drive? Maybe just deciding to spend no more money on roads?

For the record, the new policy statement allocates 78 per cent of transport funding over the next 10 years to roads. To suggest that's the policy of a car-hating government is an overreaction.

Public transport gets 21 per cent, and active transport (walking and cycling) gets a massive 1 per cent.

5. Aucklanders love their cars.

Hosking again, and yes, some do, but some not so much. Aucklanders use their cars a lot, and one reason is that very often they do not have a choice. The new policy is designed to create choice, to make non-car forms of transport more viable for more people.

The best example of why this will work is the Northern Busway, which now carries more than half of all peak-time commuters over the harbour bridge. Before it was built, critics claimed no one would use it. Because, that's right, Aucklanders love their cars.

6. Using the Road Transport Fund to pay for rail or other public transport is theft.

National MP Judith Collins has argued this on Twitter and in Parliament. Hosking says the tax is "for roads and bridges". In fact, it's a tax to be spent on land transport.

Collins and Hosking might be on stronger ground if motorists did not benefit from spending on rail and other public transport. But they will. Better public transport is the key to addressing congestion on the roads. Once our PT network is citywide and efficient, many more people will leave their cars at home and those who don't will benefit from that.

7. The government is prioritising the needs of tourists getting to and from the airport.

National's Jami-Lee Ross told Parliament this. But a great many air travellers are not tourists, they're locals. Moreover, the proposed light rail line to the airport will be a commuter line connecting Aucklanders with one of the biggest employment precincts in the city. Tourists will benefit, but they're not the main reason for creating that line.

8. Light rail to the airport is the number one priority.

Transport minister Phil Twyford has announced this. But should it be? Light rail to the airport was an election talking point and it makes for a good headline. But the part of Auckland in most desperate need of good public transport is the east.

Rapid transit is proposed to link the airport to Puhinui and Manukau, and then Flat Bush, Botany and Howick. It will be a busway like the Northern Busway, to start. Twyford lists that project as number two, but he needs to ensure it gets an early start.

9.A congestion tax would be better than a fuel tax in Auckland.

Most economist-minded commentators say this. Fuel taxes are not especially fair, because the people they hurt the most are those least able to afford them. This makes them "regressive".

In fact, fuel taxes are regressive in several ways. Poor people spend a higher proportion of their incomes on petrol, so the damage to their disposable income is more severe. They tend to drive vehicles that a less fuel-efficient, to live in outer suburbs and to have less access to efficient public transport, all of which mean they need to buy more petrol. And if they do shift work, public transport may never be available.

So, congestion charging on the motorways and in the city centre would be fairer: if you're taking part in the worst congestion, you'll have to pay for the privilege.

But congestion charging (like other forms of demand pricing) takes several years to set up. The last government seemed to favour it, but was in no hurry to get the work done.

That tardiness has fed the crisis we're in today. Fuel taxes are proposed because they can be implemented quickly and easily, while we wait for a better approach to be developed. But those fuel taxes have to be used to fund the services that are needed most urgently: a much stronger public transport network in the poorer parts of the city.

10. We can't do much about road safety.

Reducing the carnage on our roads is the top policy goal of the new transport framework, but many commentators mutter than maybe it just can't be done.

The death rate on New Zealand roads has risen sharply in just the last few years: 253 in 2013 became 379 in 2017. Why? You can blame the cars, the roads, the advertising, whatever, but what it all comes down to is that, for many reasons, not enough of us drive safely.

There are many ways we can reduce the lethal consequences of that fact, and they are not all expensive. Putting a median barrier down the middle of all state highways, for example, would cost only half what the last government was going to spend on the proposed new East West Link between Penrose and Onehunga.

11. It's all nonsense.

Pretty much everyone who's complained has said this.

The government's transport policy statement was clearly signposted during the election and should have surprised no one. It prioritises safety, goes some way to redressing a long-standing imbalance between roads for private use and public transport, slots into a larger framework for regional development and makes a serious attempt to address the crisis of roads congestion – especially in Auckland.

It's transport, there are no overnight solutions and whatever we do will be complex and often expensive. But it's not nonsense. And yet, although the need to develop and debate long-term strategy is obvious, the debate has been sound-bited into "punitive taxes", "robbing the regions" and "penalising motorists". None of those things are true.

How are we going to face up to the big difficult issues if politicians and commentators prefer the lazy option of easy trash talk?

 

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