Jacinda Ardern spent Friday campaigning in the Wairarapa. Labour is targeting the National-held seat and is confident it can win.
The party’s candidate, list MP Kieran McAnulty, is an ambitious, energetic local with a high profile. In 2017 he got within 3000 votes of the sitting MP, the lacklustre Alastair Scott, and this time he faces a first-time National candidate, farmer Mike Butterick, who is not well known.
Although it’s essentially a rural electorate, Wairarapa has been held by Labour before – most recently by Georgina Beyer from 1999 till 2005 – and an influx of new residents, many of them from the Labour stronghold of Wellington, could help tilt the scales in Labour’s favour.
Ardern’s charm offensive on Friday gives context to the otherwise puzzling announcement in July that the government will invest $10 million in an upgrading of Masterton’s Hood aerodrome, a facility currently used mainly by topdressing planes and recreational flyers. That sum will be augmented with a multi-million-dollar contribution from Masterton District Council. (I say multi-million because the actual sum isn't clear. Council chief executive Kath Ross told the Wairarapa Times-Age in July that the council would contribute $7 million, but information subsequently released to me by her office indicates the actual commitment will be $4.2 million, with an additional $2.75 million to be sought in the form of "grants, fees, charges and co-investment". Make of that what you will.)
The announcement of the Hood upgrade came out of the blue and makes sense only when seen as an enticement to vote Labour. In other words, it’s a prime example of the old-fashioned pork-barrel politics most of us thought had been consigned to history decades ago.
The entire process behind the government’s decision to fund the upgrade, and the buy-in by the district council, has been strikingly opaque. It’s not clear where the initiative came from and no substantive business case or cost-benefit analysis has been made public. The probable reason is that none exists.
Masterton ratepayers have seen nothing to indicate the upgraded aerodrome will generate an economic return and thus justify the investment of ratepayers’ money that might be better spent on other services or facilities. As I pointed out on this blog in July, not one of the various cheerleaders for the project – neither McAnulty, Grant Robertson (who announced it), Ron Mark nor Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson – has identified a single new user of the upgraded aerodrome.
Scheduled air services in and out of Masterton have been tried twice in the past 20 years. In both cases they were abandoned because they made no money.
In an attempt to establish the economic rationale (assuming there is one) behind the Hood project, I twice sought information from Masterton District Council under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. The responses added little to what was already known, reinforcing my suspicion that both the government and council have committed public money to the upgrade based on airy assumptions that are not backed by any substantive business case.
Among other things, the council provided me (but only after I approached them a second time, after a totally inadequate response to my first request) with a poorly written “executive summary”, of anonymous authorship, that was heavy on positive-sounding buzzwords but had all the substance of candy floss.
The documents fail to reveal who will use the improved aerodrome/airport or where the projected financial returns, assuming there are any, will come from. The projections rely heavily on the hope that scheduled air services will resume – but there’s no indication that any airline is eagerly waiting for Hood to be improved, and nothing to suggest that upgrading the aerodrome will magically make it profitable.
Perhaps most disturbingly, there’s nothing to indicate that Masterton district councillors subjected the project to any rigorous analysis or even detailed discussion. No minutes, no formal resolutions: zilch.
I can only repeat what I wrote on this blog on July 20: in the absence of any compelling case for the upgrade, we’re left with no other conclusion than that it’s a brazen vote-buying exercise - one that Masterton ratepayers have been suckered into subsidising by a council that displays little regard for responsible financial stewardship and even less for transparency.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.