Political Roundup: 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.

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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.

Further reading on Transport

Kate Green (RNZ): Ending half-price fares risks gains in changing transport behaviour – advocates
Lauren Crimp and Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Fuel tax cuts: What you need to know
Craig McCulloch (RNZ): Fuel tax cut extended to end of March, subsidy to be halved – govt
Bridie Witton (Stuff): Government to reinstate full fuel taxes, Treasury predicts 2023 recession in financial update
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Fuel tax return: Petrol to rise 25 cents from end of summer, half-price public transport to end
Lillian Hanly (1News): Half price public transport, cheaper petrol extended, but phased out by April
Zarina Hewlett (Today FM): The end to cost of living crisis measures will ‘add to inflation’ says Transport NZ
Justin Wong and Hanna McCallum (Stuff): Rail activists paintbomb Deputy PM Grant Robertson’s Wellington office
Vita Molyneux (Herald): Restore Passenger Rail protesters cover Government offices in fake blood
1News: Rail protesters target four MPs’ offices with ‘fake blood’
Moana Ellis (Local Democracy Reporting): Cost of rural rail transport must drop – mayor

Other items of interest and importance today

Luke Malpass (Stuff): Deputy PM Grant Robertson signals main course of status quo, with a potential side of stimulus in HYEFU
Richard Harman (Politik): Robertson tells Ministers to “murder their darlings” (paywalled)
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Government books in great shape – but the economy about to hit the wall (paywalled)
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): HYEFU: Robertson keeps it simple and conservative (paywalled)
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Robertson to go back to ‘basics’ for next Budget
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Government opens books on last day of politics, extends fuel cut for month
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Grant Robertson remains committed to $3.5b income insurance scheme (paywalled)
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Speed-bump recession coming: Latest Government forecasts show 2023 drop in growth, jump in unemployment
RNZ: Economy headed for shallow recession, government books expected to hold up well
Rebecca Howard (BusinessDesk): Treasury chimes in with central bank, now expects recession (paywalled)
Brent Edwards (NBR): Treasury warns of recession next year (paywalled)
Herald: Fruit and vegetable prices leap 20 per cent in one year
Cameron Smith (Herald): Shrinking savings: Data reveals how much less you could be saving this year (paywalled)
Murat Ungor (Newsroom): GDP growth figures highlight growing risk of stagflation
Gareth Vaughan (Interest): ‘We still think we have more work to do’; RBNZ’s Hawkesby
Gareth Vaughan (Interest): Treasury says government fiscal policy will support RBNZ monetary policy

Peter Dunne: Unwise to ignore the Ombudsman and the Auditor-General
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Andrea Vance (Stuff): The justice ministry said politicians wanted their views on fundraising rules kept secret. The politicians say that’s not true
Mike Hosking (Herald): Labour promises next year will be different. Really, how?(paywalled)
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Michael Neilson (Herald): Much-needed laughs as Parliament wraps up tough year that was 2022
Claire Trevett (Herald): The PM and why Act leader David Seymour won’t be too upset about the ‘arrogant prick’ jab (paywalled
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Irritable MPs don’t let up on the insults as the parliamentary year comes to a close
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): A brief history of New Zealand politicians calling people pricks
Molly Swift (Newshub): World media reacts to Jacinda Ardern calling ACT’s David Seymour an ‘arrogant prick’ in Parliament
Akula Sharma (Herald): ‘Rare blunder’: World media reacts to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s ‘arrogant prick’ remark
William Hewett (Newshub): Christopher Luxon responds to Jacinda Ardern’s ‘arrogant prick’ comment about David Seymour
Herald: National’s Luxon says PM Jacinda Ardern’s ‘arrogant prick’ David Seymour comment sign of pressure
John MacDonald (Newstalk ZB): The Prickly PM – Keeping it real? Or is there more to it?
Thomas Coughlan (Stuff): Jacinda Ardern apologises for ‘arrogant prick’ comment, but stands by it
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Jacinda Ardern apologises for calling David Seymour an ‘arrogant prick’
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Justin Wong (Stuff): Labour and National re-select 2020 Ōtaki candidates for election in 2023
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Laura Smith (Rotorua Daily Post): Fighting for Rotorua: ‘Serious and ongoing’ breaches of Human Rights Act in emergency housing
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Benn Bathgate (Stuff): Hamilton Mayor welcomes MSD motel reforms, but queries alternatives
Benn Bathgate (Stuff): Kāinga Ora reveal plans for Rotorua development
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Eva Corlett (Guardian): New Zealand’s emergency housing system breaches human rights, inquiry finds
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RNZ: Property market drop deeper than anticipated and more to come – CoreLogic report

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  1. According to an interview I heard on Radio NZ National this morning, the half-price fare reduction only increased public transport use by 7 %. Hardly transformational. The biggest problem with public transport in most parts of NZ isn’t the price of tickets – it’s the long wait for the next bus if you miss one.

    • all I can say is the buses had more passengers round our way…daytime tends to be lighter traffic than peak times (obviously) so do the stats account for that?
      and yes pope reliability is a problem the answer is stop subsidising private bus companies who don’t invest and invest in public service transit.

      the answer is putting up travel costs purely ‘because we can’

  2. ” 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 ”

    That’s because he is !

    Another third way neo liberal apologist.

    Labour in name only.

    There is no such thing as a ” Labour ” finance minister.

  3. Ditching what’s popular and keeping what’s not popular…One would have to wonder who is in charge now.???

  4. Now if you were to swap the fares discount for a pie discount. I bet you it would be entrenched in legislation somewhere!

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