Dunne's Weekly: Wellington About To Learn Hard Political Lesson

Published: Thu 26 Oct 2023 10:23 AM
The essence of politics is often described as about the contest of ideas. But really the political process is primarily about the pursuit and retention of power. Without power, it is very difficult to promote, let alone implement, ideas, no matter how worthy they might be.
A good example of this occurred in Wellington last week when a high-level meeting was convened to consider the future of “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” (LGWM), a “vibrant plan” conceived in 2014 to “transform” Wellington’s transport future. It has been projected to cost around $4 billion over the next 30 years, with central government expected to provide around $2.5 billion of that amount. LGWM has been bogged down in controversy over some of its proposals for some time, and little progress has occurred. The National Party has expressed misgivings about LGWM and has confirmed since the election that as the incoming government it will not be supporting significant aspects of the proposal.
Against that background, the pathos of last week’s high-level meeting was obvious. It was called by the city’s Green Mayor and involved Wellington’s two new Green MPs, and one Labour MP, to work out a way to save LGWM. Given the changed national political environment, it was no more than a symbolic waste of time. LGWM’s future will be determined by the new government, not the Mayor and three local MPs opposed to the government. LGWM looks set to be the first of many issues over the next few years when the impotent pleadings of Wellington’s local leaders will run a distant second to the priorities of the National-led government.
In that regard, it is worth noting that for the first time in almost 30 years, there is not a government Minister holding a Wellington city electorate, making it even harder for the city’s voice to be heard at the highest level. Over the years, Wellington has benefited from having local MPs as Ministers. Major projects like the development of the iconic national Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, the upgrading of the city’s urban rail services, and the construction, after a century of delays, of the Transmission Gully highway north of the city would not have occurred without it.
Now, with the city facing even greater infrastructural challenges such as upgrading its aging water reticulation system and improving its seismic resilience, the city will probably need to rely on gaining the ear of incoming Finance Minister Nicola Willis, a list MP based in Wellington. Yet she was not part of the Mayor’s recent round-table discussion, a telling example of a lack of political nous, especially since she will have a larger say than the Mayor or any of the local MPs in determining the future of the LGWM project.
Along with the pursuit and retention of power, the essence of politics is also about the art of the possible, that is, recognising current reality and adapting to it. The awkward truth for Wellington is that while it shifted left at the recent election, the rest of the country shifted right. Wellington is now a political outlier and no amount of virtuous clinging to previously held positions is going to change that. Wellington’s leaders need to quickly come to grips with the new political realities and develop the pragmatism required to achieve at least some of what they want. Simply shouting from the sidelines about what “should” be rather than acknowledging what now “will” be, will leave them looking impotent and irrelevant.
Of course, our local leaders should be advocating for the city’s interests, but they ought to be focusing on what is achievable, rather than what they consider is desirable. As LGWM’s lack of progress over the years shows, there is a time when stalled idealism needs to give way to incremental movement on points of common agreement.
Although the winds of political change have rendered Wellington’s three electorate MPs irrelevant for the immediate future, they have created an opportunity for the Wellington City Council. The Mayor and Council should be well placed to become the dominant advocates for the city’s future, with the potential to be taken more seriously by the government than the sidelined local MPs. However, the chronic dysfunction that has plagued the Wellington City Council for about two decades now makes it unlikely that it could ever arrive at an agreed and coherent local position, let alone one that central government could address practically. A classic case of opportunity lost.
The latest revelations that there is a potential $1 billion blow-out in the Council’s long-term budget heighten the sense of financial crisis now surrounding it, which deals a further massive blow to the credibility of the Labour/Greens majority which has controlled the Wellington City Council for some time. So long as that perception remains, the new government, with its clear regard for fiscal rectitude, is even less likely to place much reliance on the Wellington City Council’s future spending plans.
Wellington will only get moving once it has a coherent and financially robust plan to put before central government. This will require much more realistic leadership than holding cosy little meetings between the Mayor and the city’s local non-government MPs to mourn the loss of LGWM as they want it.
It is the reality of who holds political power and who does not, and Wellington now looks set to learn that the hard way.
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