Luxon and the media

My good friend journalist Karl du Fresne, took the media to task last week for its aggressive attacks on Christopher Luxon regarding his Christian faith, the abortion issue and his property ownership. (

You might have thought that media would have wanted to know more about Luxon’s views on how to deal with Covid, poverty and the related housing crisis, crime, education standards and current levels of school attendance, to say nothing of how to create a cohesive caucus, given the recent fractious history of the National Party and leadership changes.

I doubt Luxon was optimistic this would be the case and he didn’t get it. The sad reality is many in the Parliamentary Press Gallery are left-wing and not committed to balanced journalism. Not surprising really. The Wellington Central electorate got more Green Party votes in the last election than any other electorate. We know also from political research that younger women are disproportionally supportive of the The Green Party. That’s no crime but tells you a lot about TVNZ and TV3s lead political reporters who are all female and young and live somewhere in Wellington.

Interestingly the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett (Press Gallery) and Herald columnist Fran O’Sullivan, took a much more balanced approach as did Pattrick Smellie’s “Business Desk”. There are other very good journalists in New Zealand including Hamish Rutherford at the Herald and Luke Malpass at Stuff.

Stuff (December 4) had a sensible editorial on Luxon which implicitly criticised RNZ’s Morning Report interviewer Susie Ferguson, for her “unusually tactless line of inquiry” on the subject of “faith”. However it ended saying saying Luxon’s response to a Newshub interview re abortion was not “smart politics….”There is a way of expressing a pro-life position, as English has done, without falling into Newshub’s trap”. So I take it from that comment, Luxon and other politicians must expect to be entrapped and thus should be slippery in their answers. Somehow I don’t think this is what voters want.

To me it looked like the rabid attacks on Luxon were driven by a desire to see him stumble, as did Todd Muller last year. These same journalists have given the Government a fairly soft ride on many issues, including been less than frank about requiring those who contracted Covid to home detention, instead of quarantining in hotels, as mandated by the state for most overseas arrivals.

Another area where the media has generally been pathetic is “Three Waters”. There are very good reasons for the state to encourage aggregation of Three Waters operations around the country, because many, not all existing ones, have failed to deliver adequately. (See kiwiblog)

However whether the state should effectively take them over against the wishes of local government, and then have 50% of the boards to iwi, is a completely different matter. I expect media to dissect the issues in a balanced manner including, why four and why does one include Gisborne, Wellington and across the water, Nelson? But no – Andrea Vance of Stuff did a recent long article which pretty much said anyone who opposed iwi having 50% control is racist. The paper then refused an op ed offered by the Taxpayers Union (of which I was chair) and also a paid advertisement by the Taxpayers Union, with similar content.

I respect their right to reject any advertisement but even now in this Woke age, was surprised they rejected publishing an advertisement which took a somewhat different line from them. Maybe it was because their text included a par drawing attention to how much money Stuff, and other media gets from the Government.

Clearly Luxon will have to assemble a team that can deal with the media realities. Listening to Kathryn Ryan’s interview with Luxon this week gave me an idea. Kathryn is very well informed and works hard at getting her views across, particularly with guests that have different approaches.

She wanted Luxon to respond to her assessments of the Key government’s achievements whereas he wanted to talk about where we are at present the future. One tactic he might consider is saying to Kathryn, “I know you have much to say so why don’t I sit back for ten minutes so you can, and I will come back when you have a question about policy for the future.”

Today politicians are media trained to get their message across and avoid answering questions directly. They need to go further. There is no reason why any needs to accept an invitation to be interviewed or accept the framing of that discussion. The scope of interviews should be negotiated carefully at the outset.

In the case of Luxon they will also have to build up their capacity to communicate directly to the population because expecting a fair go out of many political journalists is simply unrealistic.

While I despise Trump I had to admire the way he cut through much media by going direct to the public with his Twitter tweets. Thankfully New Zealanders are not so polarised a leader like Luxon has to go this way, but there are lessons to be learned.

Declaration: I am an old white, male who is an atheist and pro choice, and long time resident of Wellington.

Draft NZ History Curriculum submission

Dear Ministry 

By way of background I studied “NZ History” at Victoria University of Wellington in the 1960s and have read other historians since including; James Belich, Michael King, Claudia Orange and specialised books by Ron Crosby and Vincent O’Malley.

History is about facts and context.   If we think about the last 1000 years, much history is about war, slavery, domination of the masses by elites, food production and survival.  

In the last six hundred years events were influenced by technology and industrial development.  This allowed European countries to become colonisers of South America, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and no doubt also contributed to their sense of cultural superiority.    

History is also contestable as the Ministry is finding with the reaction to the draft.   
Having failed to teach NZ history properly in the last 50 years, it is important that the curriculum presents the most relevant facts and context, in order that our children can reach a balanced and informed view.   It appears however those involved in drafting the curriculum, have decided to skip that stage and go straight to themes.  This is a terrible mistake.

Key elements of a draft curriculum should include:

1.  The polynesian migration to NZ about year 1200.   
2.  How the Maori lived and interacted with each other up to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1769.
3.  How Maori and British people lived and interacted with each other up until 1840.  This would have to include the Musket wars which were resulted in tens of thousands of Maori deaths and was a factor in the signing of the Treaty.  
4.  The arrival of mainly British people (also some Chinese) in the period up to 1900, and the pressure from them to acquire land, by one means or the other, including the land wars and unjustified confiscations.  
5.  The development of infrastructure (roads, ports and rail) and pastoral farming.   
6.  The improvements in life expectancy of all citizens up until 1900.     
7.  Constitutional developments and how NZ moved away from colonial status until it adopted the Statute of Westminister, and became a high quality democracy.
8.  From the 1960s how Maori became more assertive and demanded and honouring of the Treaty.   Explain the Treaty process.    

If our children had a good grasp of the big picture, they would be better equipped to understand any post colonial themes developed by academics or others.   

A fairer tax system

Amended September 22, 2021

We have a serious and growing problem of wealth inequality and too many families lack the ability to adequately provide for their daily needs.  

This is all exacerbated by insanely high house prices, the growth of single parent families, drug consumption and obesity.  It’s bad for race relations, undermines social cohesion and will ultimately result in more crime and social costs, much of which will be borne by taxpayers.        

Tax is neither “love” nor “theft”.  Governments require a proportion of GDP to protect its citizens, provide essential services, create a prosperous society and help ensure all have the opportunity to succeed.  Some incomes are way overtaxed and there are also gaps in the tax system.

It’s a sad reality of life that new taxes are extraordinarily hard to introduce politically.  Successive governments have relied on bracket creep to increasing the state’s share of national wealth, in order it can look like Father Christmas, either with more spending or so-called tax reductions.  We need to have a mature discussion about tax policy, sans the histrionics that typically accompany any suggested changes or new taxes.    

Unlike many on the right, I don’t believe the most important issue is whether the central and local government spend 25% or 35% of GDP.  The real issue is the quality of spending.  Unfortunately, many of those in charge of spending the taxpayers’ money are rarely driven by the need for frugality and cost effectiveness.  I exclude most ministers of finance over the past 30 years or so who have generally done their best to be prudent, fending off big spending colleagues.  

There is a vast array of interest groups who argue for more spending and claim that most Government departments and agencies are underfunded.   Departments themselves rarely if ever say they are over funded and offer money back to the Crown.  The NZ Taxpayers Union is one of very few organisations that actually wants to trim Government expenditure.     

Tax policy can help, but not solve by itself, some major problems such as absurdly high house prices, income inadequacy and wealth inequality.  In the case of house prices, even if the land was free, houses still cost too much to build.  I suspect the Accommodation Supplement actually supports rental rises in the private sector.  (See my post about housing, which is mostly a supply issue) 

The complex “Working for Families”, effectively allows employers to pay less than would otherwise be the case.  Worse, it creates effective high marginal tax rates for hundreds of thousands of people.  It cannot be abolished in one step but its negative effects could be reduced.  

The median income in NZ is around $55,000.  No one on that income should be paying 30% of their marginal income in tax, as they currently do.  Nor should anyone earning a modest $70,000, face a marginal tax rate of 33%.   Income from labour is way over taxed, capital gains are undertaxed and asset transfer from parents to children, or other recipients, are not taxed at all.  

Taxing term deposits now earning around 1%, when inflation is about the same, is simply not fair and partially drives the push into rental housing, by those with savings.             

The last real reform of the tax system came from Roger Douglas’s 1984-7 budgets which slashed the top rate from 66% to 33%, introduced GST at 10% and eliminated a collection of wholesale taxes.  Since then the system has become very complex and thus difficult to change without disadvantaging someone.  

Labour’s decision to re-introduce a top rate of 39% on income over $180,000 is lazy thinking, but politically understandable.  Certainly not transformative.  National’s proposal to index tax brackets was a good, if belated, attempt at fairness.  While defeated they should hold onto that concept.          

Transfers between generations and gifting, are windfall gains for recipients and should be taxed.  Why exempt them while taxing people earning the median wage at 30% with higher effective marginal tax rates for those who receive Working for Families Assistance?  

Capital gains should be taxed in a way that is simple to administer, fair and consistent with rapid economic growth.  Not easy.  

I propose major changes to each category 

Income tax:

There be three tax brackets: 0%, 22% and 33%. The tax brackets should be indexed to median incomes.  

Income levels

$0-27,500 0%

$27,500-110,000                    22%

$110,000 and above               33%

This would create a massive $8 billion plus reduction in Government tax revenue which would have to be offset by other taxes and expenditure reduction.

Capital gains

Currently, contrary to popular belief, not everyone can avoid being taxed on their capital gains.  Property developers and share traders (as deemed by IRD) pay income tax on their profits, while those holding some offshore shares pay a deemed rate of return of 5% on their shares.  Second home owners can pay income tax on properties sold within 10 years.  

All taxes, particularly capital gains, have technical and political problems.   Taxes on unrealised gains often create cash flow problems, if little or no income is produced, while waiting until the assets are sold can distort investment decision making.  

The Michael Cullen report went over the top by ignoring inflation and created too many compliance costs to be viable operationally and politically.  Rather than bring all assets under one tax regime I propose it be tailored for each asset class.    

This area requires real tax expertise.  The Government should seek advice from the experts about the best way of bringing more capital gains into the income tax net, in way that is consistent with an economic growth strategy.   

Inheritance or asset transfer taxes

All transfers of cash and other assets, other than between life partners, would be subject to tax at the flat rate of 22%.  This would apply to all transfers per annum of $5000 or more.  

It would be paid by the donor, whether living or not.

Taxes for “bad goods”

At present we tax alcohol and tobacco at high rates on the basis they discourage consumption of goods because they are bad for health.  There is a case for extending these taxes, but no change should be made without the most rigorous analysis of the facts including the record of them in other countries.

Environmental taxes:   

Any extension of these taxes (including carbon taxes) should again be subject to the most rigorous analysis.

Expenditure reductions

NZ Super:  The age qualification should be increased from the current 65, to 70, starting in 2022, reaching 70 in 2032.  The increase from 60 to 65 happened without too much fuss.  Now Winston Peters has gone its time leading politicians got real.  People under the age of 70 who cannot work at their normal jobs for physical reasons, could access a benefit along with other beneficiaries.  

Kiwisaver subsidies:  End all KiwiSaver subsidies and make it compulsory at the 3 plus 3% level.  

Corporate welfare:  End any subsidies that could be deemed corporate welfare.  Potential to save at least $1B.    


The proposals would improve the lot of those of average and below income and or wealth, at the expense of the rest.  While the wealthier sections of the population would initially be worse off, they also benefit from living in a less fractured society.  

Declaration:  These are my personal views which have been informed by real life experience including: Press Secretary to the Labour Party leader Bill Rowling, PR Manager NZ Manufacturers Federation, consultant to the NZBR, 25 years as a Government Relations consultant and as chair of the NZTU, which ended earlier this year.      

Democracy or Partnership – what do we want?

Updated April 24, 2021

The departure of Donald Trump from the White House was a victory for the US democratic system, which only just succeeded.   If then Vice President Mike Pence had wavered under enormous pressure from President Trump and his cult-like supporters, Joe Biden might not be in the White House and there would have been serious civil disorder.  The Republicans haven’t given up, they are now trying to make voting more difficult in several states.  Democracy is a model under threat from many quarters, and losing around the world.

It is easy to forget how recently democracy has become mainstream.  In Britain women over the age of 21 only got the vote in 1928 and in the US, universal suffrage only became accessible to all Afro-Americans in the last 55 years, because, prior to the 1960s voting reforms, there was serious voter suppression in parts of the country.  Some former East European countries like Hungary have retreated from the democratic model and others like Greece and Italy have struggled to deal with major economic challenges. 

At present New Zealand has a quality democracy.   We have fairly-drawn electorates, an easy voting system, and a reasonable level of political literacy.  Money struggles to buy Government policy, which is all as it should be.  

However, we have no reason to be smug, because this democracy is under threat. Governments since 1987 and the Courts have been entrenching a modern view that the Treaty of Waitangi means there is an ongoing “partnership between the Government and Iwi”.  Some Maori leaders want a form of co-governance between Parliament, elected by all New Zealanders, with one which has to negotiate policy with iwi leaders.  

The partnership concept has been advanced in small steps, without the Government first holding an honest conversation with all New Zealanders.  Apart from concerns about the costs in the early stages of the treaty settlement process, New Zealanders have basically remained silent while governments negotiated settlements and wrote the subsequent legislation.  

I have voted in general elections for decades, and for referenda on liquor laws, the parliamentary term, MMP, marijuana and end of life choice, but never on whether we should have a partnership model of government with anyone else.    

For the record, while I prefer they don’t exist, separate Maori seats or even Maori wards, do not undermine our democracy, provided each is based on the same electoral numbers as general electorates and wards.  Nor do I think a requirement for central and local Government to have regard for the views of Maori, destroys democratic integrity, provided the consultation process is genuine, and also that it doesn’t necessarily mean agreement must be reached.  

These provisions help create social cohesion that is critical to successful democracies.  However, we could soon reach a point when the word “democracy” will not accurately describe our form of government.         

For anyone who thinks I may be exaggerating the threat to our democratic model, I strongly recommend they read the 2010 iwi-sponsored 129 page “The report of Matike Mai Aotearoa – the independent working group on constitutional transformation”.  It is all laid out with a plan to achieve the transformation by 2040.  The recommendations are not about making the Treaty fit within the current constitutional arrangements; rather it creates a whole new form of Government based around a minority view of what the Treaty means.

The recently released Government commissioned “He Puapua”, report of the working group on a plan to realise the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand, takes the iwi report a step further. It’s not clear exactly where this report sits with Government thinking, but looks like an indication of a pathway to radical change. 

New Zealanders need to wake up and get real about the Treaty, and the history of this country since Maori arrived around 1200 AD.  The three article Treaty was a well-intentioned effort on the part of the non-democratic British Government, to deal with what it saw as a very untidy situation in New Zealand, where 100,000 odd tribally divided Maori lived alongside a couple of thousand British settlers, some of whom were seriously disorderly.  

A key part of the backdrop to the Treaty were the inter-tribal musket wars in the decades up to 1840.  In his comprehensive book (“The New Zealand Musket Wars”) historian lawyer Ron Crosby, has written about the devastating impact on Maori in respect of the tens of thousands killed, enslaved or cannibalised.  Prior to the arrival of Europeans Maori tribes fought regularly but lives lost were modest compared to the Musket Wars for obvious reasons.  

Captain Hobson was asked to negotiate a Treaty which ceded sovereignty to the British Crown, protected Maori property rights and treated them all as British subjects.  At the time there were around 500 tribes, no secure property rights, no border controls and no central government, notwithstanding the 1835 tribal confederation declaration that New Zealand was a country.  

In the English version, Article 1 unambiguously had the Maori ceding sovereignty to the Crown.  Unfortunately, this was imperfectly translated into the Maori version, which most of the 500 Maori chiefs signed.   A few did sign the English version and some did not sign it at all.  The Treaty itself was written a few days before Hobson met with the Chiefs and the Maori version was translated by Henry Williams over a couple of days.  Inadequate effort was made to ensure both versions said precisely the same thing.   (See Claudia Orange “The Treaty of Waitangi”)

This must have been one of the most sloppily negotiated Treaties between any two countries (in our case Tribes) of the Nineteenth Century.  That it is seriously regarded today is a testament to the patience and long game played by Maori leaders, who have used the Courts and lobbied with great skill to claw back what they now see as lost ground.  It also attests to the reasonableness of the Crown in recent decades, to at least partially remedy the errors of the past.     

Regardless of the flaws in the Treaty process and subsequent events, New Zealand has slowly morphed into a fully independent democratic country, where everyone, including Maori, has a reasonable chance of a quality life.  Government legitimacy today derives from the quality of our current democratic institutions, not from what happened in 1840.      

It is a remarkable contrast with Australia where the aboriginals had been for roughly 60,000 years, yet were deemed to own no land – Terra Nullius it was declared to be.  The Maori had been in New Zealand for just 600 years prior to the arrival of the Europeans and were by the Treaty considered to own all the land, notwithstanding the reality there was only about 100,000, over a space now occupied by five million people.

Over the past few centuries, the democratic model combined with a well-regulated market economy, has proven to be far superior to: unconstitutional monarchies, theocracies, military dictatorships, anarchy and tribalism.  It has delivered freedom, higher living standards and increased life expectancy, for people of all races, even though within countries there are commonly divergences between ethnicities.  We should maintain and improve our institutions to meet the varying requirements of our largely successful multicultural society.      

Since 1840 we have seen the breakdown of the old tribal management and lifestyle, which has been replaced by Maori living in a similar way to the rest of the population.  At the same time, they have intermarried to considerable extent, and some like my successful middle-class second cousins, are as pale as myself.  Regardless of blood, all descendants of Maori are legally deemed to be Maori, regardless of skin colour.     

Iwi, newly enriched through the treaty settlement process, are now akin to large managed funds, with some statutory powers, not available to others.   That power can be used to commercial advantage.  It will inevitably lead to opaque public policy decisions which will undermine confidence in the integrity of Government.   

The media and others too frequently stigmatize Maori as impoverished and on the fringes of society.  That was some truth in that 100 years ago, but not today.   Most poor people are not Maori and not all Maori are poor, even though proportionally they are less well off than those of European descent, and have worse statistics in crime etc.  Like thousands of renting Kiwis, they face major hurdles becoming home owners and the same challenges providing for their families.  We have major equity issues with the bottom quartile, which requires urgent solutions.     

There are ways of meeting the different needs of Maori and other cultures within one democratic governmental system.  As a strong supporter of the market economy, I recognise that “one size does not fit all”.  There will be ways in say education and health services and possibly even prisons, that different systems can be developed for those Maori who want them.  It has to be handled in a practical manner – separate heart or cancer units in hospitals would for instance be absurd, because we barely have critical mass at present.  

All Kiwis should accept there is still some negative flow on from the previous colonial era.  None of these challenges should be beyond the wit of governments.  However, they should stop naively entrenching iwi powers in statutes, because that will end badly one way or the other, and New Zealand will lose its credibility as a quality democracy, with the same rights for all.  

Its democracy or partnership – we cannot have both.

Authorities: Keith Sinclair “A History of New Zealand”, Michael King, “Penguin History of New Zealand”; Claudia Orange, “The Treaty of Waitangi”; Vincent O’Malley; The New Zealand Wars”; Ron Crosby; “The Musket Wars” – see also Ron’s “The Forgotten Wars”; Elizabeth Rata, “Marching through the Institutions: “The Neoliberal Elite and the Treaty of Waitangi”; Brian Easton’s, “Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand”; The report of iwi sponsored “Matike Mai Aotearoa – The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation”. 

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Affordable housing is possible

If our majority Labour Government is true to its roots it will:

  1. Aim to increase the rate of state house building from the present 2000-3000, to 5000-10,000 over the next ten years. This along with necessary sales and demolition, would result in an increase from the present 64,000 units, to somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000.

2. Find cost effective ways of helping local government finance the infrastructure costs of new housing sites. The NZ Initiative has some some good policy work here.

3. Regulatory reform, including the RMA, is complex but must be done with great care and at speed.

Affordable housing is possible but it requires many things, including a Government that actually wants to achieve it. At present it looks like the PM and Finance Minister only want to slow home price rises, not reduce them back to the 2017 prices, when housing was a “crisis” in the eyes of Labour, and now just a serious problem.

This is not good enough – housing affordability should be a very high priority for the government – it trumps all but the economy. My big concern with the Government is their lack of understanding of how the machinery of state actually works.

It took nearly 40 years of poor public policy to create the present situation. It could be fixed within ten. Let’s see if our Government has the fortitude to grasp the nettle.

COVID revisited – brickbats and suggestions

A few months back I gave the government a seven out of ten for its handling of COVID.   That assessment has plummeted in over the last week, as revelations about its management of at risk border workers has shown astonishing gaps.  There has been a breakdown in the MOH- Ministerial relationship in respect of expectations and communication, and now the panic dictate to the port sector.

It is clear that a majority of staff working to protect us all from high risk arrivals to NZ, have not been given the tests that Minister Hipkins had assured the public were happening.   Rather than been grumpy about this failure of the Ministry/DHBs to perform as expected he, and the public should be outraged.   We are all entitled to know exactly how the Minister’s expectations were communicated to officials and see their explanation for what actually happened.

It is quite likely this failure to meet Ministerial and public expectations will result in thousands of people losing their jobs and businesses failing, as Auckland endures at least two weeks at level three.   This is not a simple oversight – its a major public policy failure.  It fits a pattern of sloppiness, which started when, then Police head Mike Bush, told Simon Bridges’ Select Committee, that the Police were not following up on all people in self isolation, as had been stated to be Government policy.

It reinforces the importance of a quality, efficient inquiry into how we have handled COVID from the beginning.

Having failed in the last 100 plus days to protect at risk workers, the public and the economy from the arrivals, last Friday the MOH issues an order to seaports:   “We now require everyone who works at the maritime border to get a test for COVID-19 over the next three days.”

This was presumably driven by the remote possibility that the Aucklander, who worked at a cool store, may have picked up COVID-19 from an imported product, that could have come via a seaport.

We have 13 ports that handle international vessels but it is very unlikely that any port, other than POAL or Port of Tauranga (POT), could have sent product to that cool store.  So why did such a blanket order go to all ports and why was the requirement the tests be done within three days when such a sloppy attitude was taken for months to the at risk workers, mostly at the airports and quarantine facilities?

Its understood after some pushback from the port sector the order was limited to the two major import ports.  It covers anyone who visited the port between July 21 and August 17.  Clearly those making the policy don’t understand how ports work.   Many businesses operate at the ports and when you cover everyone who has visited the two ports we could be looking at around 12,000 people altogether, who are widely dispersed in Auckland and Tauranga.

Did MOH check with the local DHBs could actually do this testing within the timetable, or did they think this would happen within three days from the Friday decree by simply waving a wand?

In addition to the two above failures its apparent MOH has done zip since the first round to refine policy settings.    We still have the absurd nonsense of butchers, greengrocers and bakeries being banned from opening at the higher COVID levels thereby channeling all food business to the supermarket duopoly.   Its about safe practices not the product range.   Surely MBIE, which must have some understanding of business, could educate MOH and Ministers.

I sincerely hope we get on top of this latest outbreak very soon and we don’t end up like the state of Victoria.  However as a matter of urgency whoever is in Government after the election will need to overhaul both the policies and operation of our pandemic system, because it has been found wanting far too many times.

There are two ways I think the pandemic could be better managed.   First equip pharmacies to do the testing.   Second have a mobile unit in at least Auckland to go to likely sites where people have COVID instead of sending them off to join some long queue.   We will get more outbreaks and pandemics and need an enduring system.


Keeping Wellington moving

The more I looked at the WCC proposals for the so called Golden Mile the nuttier the proposals seem.   The process has clearly been captured by those activists who enjoy participating in it.

The commercial sector, which pays proportionally more rates for properties of equal value, is typically less engaged with the WCC, and so we end up with business hostile proposals.   Doing nothing would be better than the three options proposed.   My formal submission is below.

Submission on “Golden Mile” concepts

August 7, 2020

The “Golden Mile” could benefit from some refinement, but the WCC must take extreme care to avoid imposing unnecessary costs or otherwise damaging the commercial sector with well intentioned policies that reduce activity and the current level of vibrancy.

A beautiful “Golden Mile” with greatly diminished commercial activity, is a formula for a sad “Mile” with empty shops and space inhabited by anti-social people not usefully employed.  The old Manners Mall is a salutary lesson in this regard and must be avoided.

I reject all three options proposed because they are too extreme.   The WCC was seriously negligent in not offering the status quo as one option, because it is clearly legitimate.

Commercial realities 

The business sector pays substantially more in rates for properties of equivalent value than residential owners, and its view should be weighted by its proportional contribution to rating revenue.

While COVID will ultimately pass, it and the ongoing impact of seismic issues, will negatively impact the CBD for up to a decade.  This is not a time for additional major capital spending.  We already have stormwater issues, civic square seismic costs, and important priorities, such as road access to the airport and eastern suburbs for both cars and commercial vehicles.

The retail sector also faces the prospect of more online shopping and the ongoing competition from shopping centres in the Hutt and Porirua.  What the CBD needs is parking for those who wish to shop in the City and for whom public transport is not the best option.  The Kaikoura quake took out car park buildings which ideally would be replaced, but not by the WCC.

Models for Wellington

Many planners like to reference the dense cities of Europe and others where zero traffic streets have been created and argue Wellington should follow suit.  Two realities are relevant to this discussion.

First, densely populated cities offshore were largely built of very durable materials prior to the car.  This does not apply to our cities which were mostly built after the arrival of the car and are consequently more dispersed.

Second, Wellington has just 200,000 people, with a daily workforce arriving from neighbouring cities, some of whom also shop here on the weekends.  This is a very modest population compared with say Copenhagen City (pop 800,000) and the recently referenced San Francisco area, pop of 890,000, and the San Francisco-Bay Area 7.7 million.

The “Mile” (actually much longer) is a long street for retail shopping and we must be realistic with our expectations.  Townsville Queensland is an object lesson in CBD planning gone wrong.   It has a population of around 200,000 and some strong suburban shopping centres.   In 1979 it made Flinders Street (its CBD main street) into a mall without cars and the CBD went down-hill not long afterwards.  Cars are now allowed back.  I have visited Townsville’s Flinders Mall most years since 1993 and have noticed the damage that was done and the costs of rectifying it.  While one can argue about which cities are relevant to Wellington, I believe Townsville is more appropriate than San Francisco and Copenhagen, both of which I have visited.  See the very readable article from the ArchitectureAU

Traffic in the Golden Mile

I reject all three options proposed by the WCC on the grounds they are extreme, too costly and will create more problems than they will solve.  Delivery vehicles, taxis, Ubers and individual drivers, need to be able to access the “Mile” from the side streets to avoid having to turn around in them thereby creating costs and congestion.

The proposals look like they are driven by dreamers, biking advocates and the anti-car brigade, who don’t understand how fragile is the Wellington economy and even how it actually works.

Recommendation:   The WCC actually visit at least as many of the business owners on the “Mile” and get their assessment of what problems may exist, and what they want done, if anything.

I suspect many of these people don’t engage with the WCC because they either don’t think it will make any difference, or they are so busy trying to simply survive they don’t have the time or skill to make submissions.   The submission process suits activists but not people in business.

Recommendation:  That the WCC remove all 99 car parks on the Golden Mile and replace them with a mix of: 10 minute stopping zones, loading zones, seats, trees and bike racks.

With just 200,000 people footpaths don’t need to be made wider because people like to be in busy streets and shop owners want them to see what they have in their windows.  The removal of the long term parks along with the new slower speed limits, which are too slow, would reduce private vehicle traffic at very modest cost.

I would be very happy to meet with the WCC on this very important matter.

Barrie Saunders

1/25 Tennyson Street, Te Aro, Wellington.     021 449 469 

Note:  Barrie Saunders has lived in Wellington for nearly 50 years including 22 years in Tennyson Street, Te Aro.   He has also lived in Melbourne, London and New York and travelled extensively in North America, Australia, Europe and South America. 

He was President of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce for three years – 2000-2002, and  was a Government Relations Consultant for 25 years until 2015 – Saunders Unsworth



NBR – a 50th reunion for those involved 1970-1990

First notice

National Business Review (NBR) will be 50 on August 26, this year.   The founders and those involved in its first 20 years are having a celebration.   We invite anyone who worked at, or wrote for the paper, to come to the luncheon on Saturday October 31, commencing at 12 Noon.

The luncheon will be at Fratelli, an Italian restaurant in 15 Blair Street Wellington, they very building Fourth Estate Holdings owned for a period.   Hugh Rennie QC is writing a memoir on those years which will be launched at the luncheon.  It is going to be a great read.

The indicative cost for the three course luncheon is $90 which some beverages with a cash bar.   Anyone who wants to come should email me at:

Numbers are limited to 60 so it will pay to register your interest early.

Wellington’s Golden Mile – a low cost fix

The Wellington City Council (WCC), never short of ways of spending ratepayers’ money, wants to improve the Golden Mile, with one option banning all private cars.

There is no shortage of people who don’t like private cars and don’t care much for business either, who will cheerfully go along with this thinking.  Some fantasise about Wellington having European shopping streets with only foot traffic.  Get real, we have just 200,000 people in the city with commuter workers adding to lunch time shopping.  There are other places to shop and of course increasingly online.

Wellingtonians need a serious reality check.   The private sector is struggling with much higher rates than residents for equivalent value properties, high costs and infrastructure weaknesses, including road access to the airport and Eastern Suburbs, to say nothing of stormwater failures.

On top of this we have a seismically challenged Civic Square including a library which might “require” $200 million to strengthen or rebuild, on top of the Town Hall which is costing at least $100 million.  And then there is the Convention Centre underway at a cost of around $160 million.  And don’t forget the Council is considering $30 million to re-work Frank Kitts park.

Some apartment owners are struggling under seismic requirements as are commercial property owners including the Amora Hotel.  At times I wonder whether our Council is not in a fantasy land where some fairy godmother is just going to magic up the money for everyone.

The unusual geography of the city inevitably makes moving across the city rather challenging.   As a long time Te Aro resident, I am familiar with the way traffic flows as well as foot traffic across the city.  I don’t believe the WCC has proved there is a big problem requiring tens of millions.

The big transport issue for commerce and residents is a second tunnel and much better road access to the Eastern Suburbs and airport.   That should be the priority.

While it would be desirable to the reduce the private traffic flow down the Golden Mile, it is critical the benefits of this outweigh the costs.   None of the proposals in my view achieve this.

The low cost effective option is to eliminate all 99 private car parks on the Mile from Courtenay Place to Lambton Quay.  Use that freed up space for a mix of wider footpaths, bike racks, seats and trees.


A readable and rational report on POAL

Revised July 17 in the light of feedback 

The most interesting thing about the Ministry of Transport commissioned Sapere report on the future of POAL’s freight operations, is that compared with the status quo, all options will add costs to the economy.

However Sapere’s terms of reference required it to assume POAL’s freight operations would have to move sometime, so the question was when does this have to happen and where is best?

Surprisingly a new port at Manukau is assessed as the least expensive producing net benefits of -$1,982 million net present value and the Firth of Thames the most expensive at -$7,294 million.  Moving the entire freight operation to Northport (half owned by Port of Tauranga – POT), was estimated to be a net -$6,252 million, POT, a net -$3,703 million and a shared Northport – POT, a net -$6,847 million.

Sapere helpfully provides an explanation as to why its conclusions materially differed from the Wayne Brown led Working Group.  A key point is they took a 60 year perspective rather than Brown’s 30 year.   (See page 15 of the executive summary – Sapere “Analysis of the Upper North island Supply Chain Strategy Working Group Options for moving freight from the Ports of Auckland”.

The good news for the Auckland City Council and the Government, is the decision does not have to be made in a rush.  Sapere thinks we have 10-15 years to make the decision.  Provided it can get the necessary consents, the container terminal may have sufficient capacity for around 30 years.  After that a substantial amount of reclamation will be necessary.

Both the Manukau Harbour and Firth of Thames sites have not yet been rigorously investigated in sufficient depth, to be confident that the indicative costs will prove to be realistic.  The Firth of Thames is favoured by the lines, but is very expensive.   A POAL there would be real competitor for POT.

It is clear from Sapere that neither option could likely be consented under the RMA and thus would require special legislation.  This flows from the Supreme Court decision regarding King Salmon (2014) and how the New Zealand Coastal Policy statement affects RMA applications in the coastal marine area.  Special legislation would be more than challenging for any Government, unless by some miracle commercial, environmental and Maori interests were supportive.  Probably when pigs start flying.

Interestingly Sapere rejected the argument that Manukau would not work because of its harbour and the dredging that would be required.   They took expert advice which did not agree with this widely held view.  Most ports require some maintenance dredging.

Sapere also rejected the claim moving the freight operations out of the current site would materially improve Auckland transport problems, because the new activity on the port land would generate its own traffic and the diverted freight would mostly enter the city through other routes.

And they rejected the claim made by the Wayne Brown report that by using the land for other activities Auckland City would be better off financially.

The politics of POAL’s future are extraordinarily complex.  NZ First desperately wants to be seen as a great advocate for Northland to win a seat, while many in the affluent suburbs of Auckland would like to see the port relocated, and presumably not replaced by high rise office blocks or apartments.

The National Party has not said much.   A majority of its supporters in Auckland want the port moved, but they have not yet seen a definitive cost.   Given POAL is owned solely by Auckland City, the rational response should to say go and lobby Phil Goff and co if you want a change.  The Government should not trample on the City’s property rights.

The Labour Party and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, have many major transport projects underway. The last thing they need is an extra, very complex and expensive freight transport project to deal with.  Auckland City is not able to fund an entirely new port anytime soon.  In that respect Sapere has done them a favour by kicking decision time down the road.

The option not considered is that POAL remains on most of its current site indefinitely, and the marketplace takes care of the freight growth by greater efficiency at POAL, and more freight going through POT and Northport.  POT is convinced it has a lot room to increase its throughput, that was not recognised by either the Wayne Brown report or Sapere.

Personally I don’t care whether POAL remains on its present site, moved to Manukau or the Firth of Thames, or some deal is done with POT and or Northport.

But having removed the central planner with the Port Companies Act 1988 and established the ports as commercial businesses, I am opposed to any taxpayer money going into any port.   Port investment is for the shareholders, which is mostly local authorities, with a few such as POT, having significant private shareholding.

However as owner of KiwiRail and the roads, the Government has a key role in determining how ports will be linked into the transport network.  Hopefully the Government will take its time on working through these complex issues, and not be influenced by one political party’s needs, or those in the leafy suburbs who want the container cranes out of their sight.

I chaired the 14 member Port CEO Group from 2002-2015.

Government and the media

The collapse of Bauer, combined with the precarious state of NZME, Stuff and Media Works’ TV3, indicates we all need to think about the future role of private media and its role in maintaining our democratic system.

There are some quick steps the Government could take to help existing media survive the next few years.  First, it would be helpful if it simply accepted its COVID policy which included decreeing magazines are not essential, was an element in the Bauer decision.

Second, it could carefully review the way it advertises, and wherever cost efficient, favour local media, over digital outlets such as Facebook which don’t provide quality journalism.   Third, it should look carefully at the way it buys New Zealand digital content providers such as BusinessDesk, the Spinoff and Newsroom, to make sure they are purchasing at the right level, given internal departmental distribution.  I have heard this is not always the case.

A merger of NZME (Herald) and Stuff would make a lot of sense, and the Commerce Minister Kris Fafoi should be looking at a way of allowing this to happen, without the need for the Kiwi share concept recently floated.   Journalists’ jobs will be lost but not 100%.   The Herald has a paywall and that might need to be extended to media in a combined group.  The merger proposition has been turned down by the Commerce Commission largely on media diversity grounds, which to me looked doubtful at the time, and now look absurd.  Time to act Kris and lets not have a repeat of Bauer.

For the longer term it should immediately convene a working group including media to explore all the options.

if advertising is to continue declining the only options are state support and subscriptions.   Through NZ On Air the state has already gone beyond radio and TV into other areas which I think is unfortunate.  Why encourage daily papers into video where they lack a comparative advantage?  This NZ On Air initiative is fragmenting media and ultimately weakening existing outlets.  It should stick to its original brief and stop spreading its support marmite thin.