Local control of local projects? Not on Steven Joyce’s watch…
I’ve long been a critic of Steven Joyce’s transport policies. As the Minister of Transport, he has control of one of the largest budgets of any cabinet portfolio in the form of the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) – the piggy bank into which our fuel taxes and road user charges are deposited. In three years as Transport Minister, he’s shown no interest in spending NLTF revenue on anything other than state highways – specifically his $25 billion Roads of National Significance Programme. Mr Joyce’s policies have placed him at odds with numerous local authorities – notably Auckland Council and Wellington City Council, both of whom have rather more balanced transport policies.
The previous Labour administration foresaw the potential for funding wars between central and local government for big transport projects. That’s why it made provision for a Regional Fuel Taxes in the Land Transport Management Act. The point of the Regional Fuel Tax was to get rid of the extreme funding centralisation that has held our cities (particularly Auckland) back, especially in the provision of public transport infrastructure. The tax would in effect give Councils their own funding mechanism with which to undertake transport projects, and therefore make their own decisions without having to take their begging bowls down to the Beehive.
Steven Joyce cancelled Auckland’s Regional Fuel Tax in 2009, arguing it’d be too much of a burden for the motorist. Indeed, given that the proposed tax was set at 9.5 cents per litre, he might’ve had a point but for a couple of home truths. Firstly, of 9.5 cents, 4.5 cents were for the use of the Council, the other 5 cents was already earmarked for motorways by central government. Secondly, the five cents earmarked for motorways was simply replaced by a nationwide 3 cent per litre fuel tax increase by Joyce in 2009. If Joyce really cared about the motorist’s back pocket, perhaps he’d wind back the amount of fuel taxes going into his National Land Transport Fund. If he was worried about 4.5 cents per litre, then what about the 48 cents per litre that motorists are pouring into the Roads of National Significance every time they fill up?
So, having established that it was nothing to do with keeping petrol prices down, what was the real reason for cancelling the Regional Fuel Tax? It can’t have anything to do with the popularity of his party- we’d vote out the Council, not the government if we disliked a Regional Fuel Tax. So again, why did Steven Joyce cancel the tax? The only logical explanation is simply that he doesn’t want regions to be able to have a say over which projects go ahead. He likes the centralisation of funding. It means that he decides what goes ahead and what doesn’t. Right now, he’s toying with Auckland Council over the City Rail Link. On the one hand, he’s refused to commit any government funding. On the other, he’s deprived the Council of a viable funding option in the form of the Regional Fuel Tax, and he’s also been publicly critical of similarly local funding mechanisms such as congestion charges. In other words, he’s stopping the project from going ahead.
This goes way beyond just being a control freak. Joyce is fundamentally undermining local democracy and abusing his power by doing this. Power, I might add, that came with no mandate – he was a first-term list MP at the time. Doesn’t reflect on MMP too well does it?
Why am I bringing this up now? Well, it’s emerged in the week after the election that Joyce, not content with being able to veto plans for regional fuel taxes, is proposing reforms to the Land Transport Management Act that will prevent Councils from even proposing local funding mechanisms such as regional fuel taxes. Even Treasury aren’t even okay with this, and that’s saying something.
For me, it comes back to the idea of democracy. I support a regional fuel tax because people vote on transport policies at a local level. Nobody votes in a general election based on transport policy. Therefore, it makes sense that local bodies should have more control over transport dollars. It’s only democratic. A big bald bully holding all the cards and calling all the shots is not.