Thursday, December 15, 2022

Bryce Edwards: Why Labour is putting up public transport fares in an election year

Yesterday’s announcement by Finance Minister Grant Robertson that the Government will axe half-price fares for public transport in an election year certainly seems odd. The Labour Government’s drive to show it can match the National Party in fiscal conservative economic management means it has ditched one of its most popular and effective policies.

Robertson announced yesterday that the Government’s current transport initiatives to combat the cost of living crisis would be axed at the end of March. The current fuel excise tax discount of 25c a litre will be phased out in March, and the half-price fares will be gone on 31 March, with only Community Service card holders able to access the cheaper fares.

Axing a popular and effective policy

On the surface, this announcement is madness – especially the decision to effectively double the price of public transport. The initiatives were implemented to take some of the sting out of the cost of living crisis, and had widespread support. The issue nicely dovetailed with Labour’s intention to transform public transport, helping combat the climate change crisis.

The public transport initiative was extremely popular, with an overwhelming majority of the public wanting it extended, not axed. A 1News Kantar poll out last week asked “Do you think half-price public transport fares should be made permanent?”, and 79 per cent replied “yes”, with only 14 per cent opposed.

In fact, there’s a strong case for actually getting rid of fares entirely, making public transport free. Again, this would be popular. A poll carried out in Auckland by research firm Talbot Mills showed that 73 per cent supported making public transport entirely free, with only 7 per cent opposing this.

Following Robertson’s announcement, the reaction of public transport campaigners has been very negative. The “Free Fares” campaign group says today that the half-price fares were very successful in getting people onto public transport and out of cars, but this progress will now be lost.

Researcher Edward Miller, of First Union, has condemned the decision as “short-sighted”, saying that as a result, “we’re going to have more congestion, more pollution and more carbon emission”.

A striking response also came this morning, with a climate change group spraying fake blood onto four Labour MPs electorate offices, including Grant Robertson’s in Wellington Central. The group claim that in their meeting last week with Transport Minister Michael Wood, he told them he simply didn’t have enough funding for passenger rail and that this issue wasn’t even in his top ten list for climate action. The group claim that Labour’s under-funding of public transport, and its subsequent climate change ramifications, mean the likes of Wood and Robertson have “blood on their hands”.

Robertson’s conservative drive

In announcing the end of the transport policies, the Finance Minister gave an illuminating speech yesterday on the Government’s financial intentions for 2023. The speech underlined his intention to spend conservatively.

Commentators have described Robertson’s statements as being extremely conservative, with comparisons made with the likes of Steven Joyce and Bill English. Labour’s Finance Minister essentially sounded like a National Party politician.

As journalist Richard Harman notes today, “Robertson used the word ‘balance’ around 30 times in his 40-minute briefing yesterday on the Budget Policy Statement.” And BusinessDesk editor Pattrick Smellie reported, “If it weren’t for the fact that a bigger spend or tax cuts now would fuel inflation, this could be a set of forecasts prepared by a conservative government.”

Robertson is focused on cost-cutting, and he says he is putting pressure on all ministers to come up with ways to “reprioritise” budgets in their portfolios. Harman points out, “the Prime Minister is expected to reshuffle her Cabinet in the first quarter of next year; presumably, reluctant reprioritisers could find themselves in danger of being reshuffled.”

Robertson has also indicated to Labour ministers that there is no longer any room for “pet projects”. According to Harman he has instructed his colleagues to “murder their darlings” in order to make savings.

Harman explains that Robertson has essentially relaunched former finance minister Steven Joyce’s distinction between “must haves” and “nice to haves.” In this case, Robertson has deemed cheap public transport a “nice to have” that can be sacrificed in the need to make savings.

Stuff political editor Luke Malpass has labelled Robertson’s intended direction as a “status quo” approach. To him, it’s all about “Robertson’s long term project of trying to convince the public that Labour is just as good an economic manager as the National Party.”

Losing their progressive soul

Labour knows it can only win next year’s election by winning the economic debate, as the campaign will take place during an economic recession. And Robertson has clearly decided that the best way to beat National is to appear just as fiscally conservative and “responsible”.

The goal is to win over more of the centre voters that Labour fears will shift to National. The problem is Labour’s shift towards the right means it will sacrifice more of what makes it identifiably different from National. It will give its own supporters on the political left even more reason to feel dissatisfied with their own government. And as we’ve seen in the recent Hamilton West by-election, this can easily result in Labour voters simply not bothering to vote.

The Green Party might be the lucky recipient of the left voters Labour burns off with its more conservative approach. But facing its own internal turmoil and identity crisis, it’s far from certain that the Greens have the ability to effectively take advantage of Labour’s conservatism. What’s more, the half-price public transport policy was not a Green Party initiative, and the party has failed to even speak out about its axing – something that will astound environmentalists.

It might well be that Labour is willing to ditch policies like cheaper public transport in order to win over the voters in the middle of the political spectrum, but they really do risk losing their political soul and self-respect when they are giving up on fundamentally core policies for progressives.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE

No comments: