Simon Wilson: What the councillors said about the fuel tax

Simon Wilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 1 Jun 2018, 6:51AM

Simon Wilson: What the councillors said about the fuel tax

Simon Wilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 1 Jun 2018, 6:51AM

Cr Fa'anana Efeso Collins is a very good and very clever orator. Rarely for him, he spoke early in the debate on whether to adopt a regional fuel tax.

"I've struggled," he said. "I've struggled with this issue since it was first proposed. I didn't make my decision till last night, when I was at St Michael's Church attending a confirmation service for a niece, and I went for a little stroll. I wanted to remain true to my values, that's important to me. I've listened to the arguments, and the logic makes complete sense. I get it. I want to unlock the public transport potential of the city, I want to see better housing.

"But I still grapple with it. My safe space when I'm not sure what to do is to pick up a book. And so I did."

He didn't mean the Bible. "I read scholarly articles." He listed authorities from around the world.

"The research was clear. These types of fuel taxes hit the poorest families the most. Sir, I represent the poorest families. Can I in good conscience vote for a fuel tax that hurts the poorest families the most?"

You see what he did there. No pressure, people, but I'm claiming the religious and the erudite and the political high ground. He was measured, his tone controlled. A reasonable man, in pain at the decision he had to make. "The feedback from the public, essentially, is evenly split. But the researchers, their evidence is overwhelming. And so my answer is no."

Collins represents Manukau. Cr Josephine Bartley, who represents Maungakiekie-Tamaki, responded. She's Samoan like Collins, and with a ward that stretches from Otahuhu to Pt England she also represents many of Auckland's poorest.

"I struggle too," she said. No one would doubt it: where Collins sucks the difficulties of decision-making into straight-backed dignity, Bartley wears the pain plainly in her hunched shoulders and crumpled face.

"When I'm faced with something difficult," she said, "I don't read a book, I go on Facebook. And that's where I read this: 'A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit under.'"

It stopped them all in their tracks. If there were still any undecideds at the table, that was probably the speech that won them over. Bartley supported the fuel tax, because despite the hardship now, over time the people it would benefit most were the people she – and Collins – represents.

You don't get a lot of great speech-making at council, but it does happen.

Cr Penny Hulse from Waitakere warmed to the quotable approach. "I'm with Yoda," she said: "There is no try, there is only do or not do."

She said they had "talked endlessly" for years, decades, and "our most vulnerable people are the ones who've done the worst out of it. Now is the time to do. If we say no, we're saying no to $28 billion, no to safety, no to all of it. Quite frankly that's nuts and I'm not doing it anymore."

The regional fuel tax will add 11.5 cents to the price of every litre of fuel bought in Auckland. It's an assumed part of the transport funding accord between the council and the Government – that $28b, spread over 10 years, most of which comes from government. The council sought public input, received almost 15,000 submissions and commissioned a 4000-strong public survey. Yesterday it had to make a decision: adopt it or drop it.

Mayor Phil Goff kicked off the debate with a carefully pointed speech. He said the one thing Aucklanders were united on was the desire for change in transport. "If we do nothing," he said, "congestion will get worse, it will soon be gridlock and we will not have had the courage to tackle it. I'm calling on each and every one of you."

Like everyone, he said, he wasn't happy the tax would hurt low-income people more. An extra $2.33 a week, says the AA. But, Goff said, the Government's Families Package provided a buffer: $75 more a week for low-income earners.

And, he added, "I don't expect the rest of New Zealand to pay more than they are already." 
If they reject this, the Government could turn its back. The transport accord, the hope for 
change in Auckland, would collapse.

Inside the National Party a different kind of anguish was going on. There are no caucuses at council, but National's transport spokesperson, Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross, has led a relentless attack on fuel taxes and the party has leaned hard on its handful of councillors.

They ended up split. Franklin's Bill Cashmore is deputy mayor and was always going to stay loyal to Goff. Albert-Eden's Christine Fletcher also voted for the tax. No one ever tells her what to do.

Waitakere's Linda Cooper said, "I will reassure the people of my ward that you might pay a bit more for petrol but you might not be so stuck on Lincoln Rd burning up that petrol." She wanted more money spent on road safety, and mentioned the Piha-Scenic Drive intersection. "I'm put here to make decisions," she said. "It's tough for me but I'm going to do it."

But Manurewa's Daniel Newman voted against: he wanted a rates increase instead, even if it had to be, as Goff suggested, as much as 14 per cent. Orakei's Desley Simpson also voted against. She said later she was guided by her constituents.

In between times it got weird. Howick's Sharon Stewart declared herself "generally in favour" of the projects the tax would fund, but was going to vote against because she did not support "having a tram from Mt Roskill out to the airport".

That's despite the light rail line to the airport not being funded from the regional fuel tax, because the Government is paying for it. Stewart represents the part of Auckland least well served by public transport, and voted against the first serious attempt to fix that.

Sir John Walker from Manurewa said it was wrong to "give the people a wage increase and take it back in fuel tax". He added, "Sure we'll get a lot of things done but at the end of the day it creates more congestion." He did not explain what "it" was. He said, "My constituents don't want it. For that reason I can't support it."

Greg Sayers from Rodney accepted that the tax will pay for $121 million in road sealing, of which 98 per cent will be in Rodney. But he was opposed anyway. He said the work in Rodney should be done from existing funds.

The submissions to council and the survey revealed a fairly evenly divided citizenry. Did that mean they had no mandate or is it a wonder so many people supported a tax increase? Goff called it "astounding".

The vote was carried 13-7 (see page 3). As Chris Darby of North Shore said, this was 
about connecting people's homes with their workplaces and schools and it will unlock housing capacity along the routes. "We have the goodwill of Aucklanders who are going to pay a bit more at the pump," he said, to provide a "total reinvention of the way we move around the city". And it's going to start now.