On March 28 the (normally safe) National-held electorate of Northland heads for a bye-election. The outcome of the bye-election will be fascinating for several reasons.
The first reason is that it’s politically important. If Winston Peters wins then it will be more difficult for National to pass controversial legislation, because they will need the votes of not just one but two support parties.
Legislation like the Sky City casino-for-convention-centre deal and RMA reforms suddenly become pawns in a three-way game of arbitrage between parties with somewhat different support bases and philosophies. Amusingly, National could end up leading a government not too dissimilar to what they warned the opposition would have been like, had the latter prevailed at the last election.
The second reason the bye-election is so interesting is that transport has, somewhat unexpectedly, become a major campaign issue.
Early in the campaign, the Minister of Transport (Simon Bridges) suddenly found $69 million in previously stretched transport budgets for two-laning a number of bridges in Northland. This funding announcement was apparently made without any information or advice being sought, or received, from transport officials. This is an announcement that Winston himself would be proud of, indeed he’s pulled similar stunts in the past.
The reality for National, however, is that few people seem to have been impressed by the transport funding announcement. Instead, it has received considerable attention for delving so blatantly into pork-barrel politics.
Questions have also been raised about the effectiveness of the spend. For many of the locals interviewed by Campbell Live, two-waying bridges seem to be far from the top of the priorities list.
National have also apparently linked funding for the Puhoi-Wellsford highway to the outcome of the bye-election. Amazing how an apparently essential piece of transport infrastructure can so suddenly becomes not so important when there is a bye-election.
I’ve personally found it interesting watching National’s transport pork-barrel approach in Northland, especially in light of recent political happenings in Australia, where I am currently based.
In Victoria, Dennis Nathpine’s Liberal Government tied their political fortunes to the eye-wateringly expensive $18 billion “East-West Link”. It was a bad pick, with polls showing the East-West link had levels of support that were half of comparable metro rail projects. Napthine was subsequently kicked out of office.
Meanwhile, in Queensland, Campbell-Newman built a reputation for delivering large, expensive, and largely unnecessary motorway tunnels. His Government’s promises of more roading pork were spectacularly dismissed after only one term in office after a 12% swing back to Labour.
And at the Federal level Tony Abbott’s unwillingness to fund passenger transport improvements in Australia’s rapidly growing cities is receiving growing criticism. This is in stark contrast to the former (and possible future) Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, who supports passenger transport.
As an economist, I think there’s a key message for National in all of these events. It’s not just that roading pork hasn’t been sufficient to save political bacon, but also that there is often a large gap between stated and revealed preferences.
Why is this important? Well, I suspect what all of these conservative parties have done, including National, is held focus groups where they’ve asked people whether they support more investment in roads. In response, many of these people have said “yes”. Something like these guys.
The problem with stated preference surveys is the trade-offs are usually not made explicit. More specifically, when you invest more in roads, you often find that you don’t get much bang for your buck.
So while people say they want more investment in roads, after a couple of years of fluffing about with largely ineffective road investments, they suddenly realise that they’re not actually much better off. Political strategies based on stated preferences may therefore work in the short run, but they are likely to run out of gas in the long run.
The lesson for National in all this, I think, is that they increasingly run the risk that people will catch onto the fact that their transport pork is failing to return much value. Every new road that opens which fails to meet forecasts, every new business case that is shown to be baloney, eventually creates the case for your opponents to shred your credibility. It won’t happen overnight, but it probably will happen.
This is especially true when you’re foolish enough to do what National have done, i.e. hang your dirty transport laundry out to dry in the blazing heat of a Northland bye-election.
This seems to be a timely and early lesson for Simon Bridges: Emulating the pork-barrel approach employed by Joyce and Brownlee will not necessarily bring you enduring political success. Just ask Nathpine, Campbell-Newman, and Abbott if you want to see the proof in that political pudding.