Keeping it In The Family


The appointment of Gerry Brownlee as the new transport minister is a National stroke of genius.

It sets in chain a bid to covert the next trophy in the cabinet: the Auckland mayoralty.

One should expect no less from a crafty former foreign trader. About the only thing that has not gone right in the three years of National’s first term was that after all the drama of ending Auckland’s dysfunctional local government, the wrong man got to take charge.

John Banks, the man publicly supported at an annual National Party conference as its preferred choice for the Auckland supermayoralty, missed out. He is of course back in National’s fold in a clever ploy as a quasi-National MP set up to execute some more extreme right wing things that some in Cabinet wished they could do but would be politically risky if branded National.

But that still annoys National as it leaves Auckland’s mayoralty in the hands of a Labour supporter who keeps raving on about what some in National sarcastically term Len’s train set proposals. There are potential National friendly people in waiting to stand this time next year to challenge Brown. Auckland Councillor Cameron Brewer is the most visible but other names being whispered even include the actual architect of the supercity, Rodney Hide, if he hasn’t been given an overseas appointment by then. Public memories fade and the Tea cup Epsom saga triggered some nostalgia for the still likeable politician.

GERRY BROWNLEE; Mr Christchurch

So why Brownlee?

  • Steven Joyce has become the most influential member of Cabinet and is now unstoppable as Da Man after being campaign manager for National’s win. He wants to be finance minister but dumping Bill English would cause uncertainty during the wobbly economic times and make a loyal Key lieutenant grumpy. So while English can continue to pour accountant eyes over the spreadsheets and take credit for the Budget, Joyce has become the true economic powerhouse, charged as the Mr Economic Fix it guy to create economic growth in these difficult times. He also can continue his pursuit of making tertiary education courses and degrees what he considers more relevant for the workforce and trim waste from the tertiary budgets.
  • Giving one of the tight four (Key, English, Brownlee and Joyce)  the transport portfolio enables the Mafioso to keep it safely in The Family. Giving transport to some new kid on the block, even Joyce think alike and former associate minister Nathan Guy, opens up the risk of a re-think on some aspects of the Joyce doctrine or the chance a more novice pair of hands could be persuaded to consider something that doesn’t fit the policy to date. So expect no change from the set direction, thanks to Gerry’s old school thinking about the portfolio.
  • A line missed by commentators yesterday is that infrastructure is now folded directly into Bill English’s finance portfolio, While English has always been infrastructure minister as well as finance, these are now one enabling infrastructure decisions to be around dollars and cents, based on their economic implications with no wriggle room for sentimentality.
  • Brownlee is another of National’s election heroes. Besides boosting his own majority in Ilam, he helped wipe out Labour’s long-held hold over the Christchurch area with National winning seats previously held by Labour. Even taking into account some of the city’s Labour-voting displaced unemployed  workers may have left the country in search of a new beginning and employment post-quake and so not around to vote, National’s victory was large enough to be seen as a clear vote of confidence in the way the Government had tried to address the disaster.
  • To some in the North, the Minister for Earthquake Recovery’s TV appearances tend to come across as that of a stubborn bombastic bumbling Cartman-type cartoon character. Christchurch still feels a shambles with not enough being done. Those in the South, obviously see a different picture closer to hand. The Christchurch recovery is going to bite heavily into the government’s coffers this term – including repairing Christchurch’s transport.

Brownlee has never expressed any love for Auckland’s transport wishlist and a scroll through the last six years of Hansard suggests the Minister does not have a lot of time for rail either especially the buyback arrangements for the trains. Like Joyce he has acknowledged rail’s role in moving freight –something he can visibly see helping move goods around the tricky terrain of the South Island.Understandably he doesn’t get commuter rail as you don’t see many trains while growing up in Christchurch.

Buses work fine as long as the road infrastructure is in place and not earthquake damaged. It will be Brownlee’s job to argue that with his knowledge of how much money has to be spent on Christchurch, there is no way Auckland can argue for money to be spent on a CBD rail link.

He will certainly be able to persuade the rest of the Auckland-hating country.

LEN BROWN: Brownleee won't make him happy

Mayor Brown will be able to go to his next election and say the designation for the Link has progressed and now it’s just a matter of finding the funding. But the problem is that  without any Government funding Brown will have to argue what some will see as unpalatable funding options such as bridge tolls and congestion charges and even those sort of measures may still not be enough to get it across the line.

A critical paper on funding options is expected before Council early in the year. At the election, a National candidate like Brewer will also strongly argue this is not the time for such projects which does not weigh up economically.

So under clever Key’s wand,Brownlee keeps transport in a safe pair of hands, being a trusted MP from the South Island, not swayed by Auckland’s ambitions.
He will be fixated on continuing to be a champion for the provinces, spending what money can be spared on increasing the smaller region’s economy such as repairing Christchurch and boosting North Auckland’s roading.
It’s true Aucklanders have expressed a wish for the train set.

But by this time next year, the chances are that a European-led recession will be biting and already some Auckland industries are reporting a worrying slowdown. It may be the last priority on people’s mind.

  • Footnote: Since writing this, my attention has been drawn to a post today by Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater - who is very close to the National Party in Auckland. It imagines a meeting between Brownlee and Brown in the New Year with the conversation going along the lines of:

Gerry: “While you push for a rail loop that neither you nor I can afford, people in Christchurch are expecting a sewer and water system to be rebuilt, along with homes on solid land, after the year from hell we had last year.”

Len: “Christchurch’s problems are big, but we need to improve Auckland too”

Gerry: “And that’s why we will be building a road of national significance, recently mandated by the voting public, to help free up transport and economic growth for the North of Auckland and beyond. The whole reason why you now have a supercity is so you can deal with your own problems. It’s your own damn fault you over-promised on projects you can’t deliver.”

Len looks downfallen. An advisor brings in a plate of pies. Gerry helps himself.

Thus ends the first and only meeting between Len Brown and Gerry Brownlee, the new Minister of Transport.




  1. Graham says:

    Great insight, so apply it to what Brownlee might be saying to Christchurch mayor, Bob Parker, and HIS plan for light rail as an integral part of the city’s recovery?

  2. ingolfson says:

    It’s also called over-confidence, and will help that next time, National will get kicked out.

    Until then, 3 hard years, but not necessarily any harder than the last 3.

    Playing Auckland off against the rest of the country will also help Len stay in power, so I don’t really think we need to drink the propaganda cool-aid / whale oil that others think we should imbibe. Plus, if we end up in a deep recession, wonder who gets the stick: The incumbent? The local government? The national-level opposition? I give you a hint. It is mainly one of the three, not the two others.

  3. rtc says:

    Brownlee has already told Bob Parker his view of a rebuilt Christchuch is one of decentralisation, motorways and sprawl. Say goodbye to ChCh’s heart and CBD, it’s not coming back.

  4. Matt says:

    From that photo it’s obvious that the new transport minister hasn’t embraced the philosophy of Active Transport for a long while. Is being fat and lazy therefore a conflict of interest for a transport minister, in that he has no idea that walking and cycling are the cheapest and healthiest forms of urban transport to provision for? Refer admin’s previous post on the WHO report for the importance of Active transport modes.

    That might seem really mean of me, but I am asking it as a legitimate question. If I was mean I’d make a joke about him being as hard working as the buttons on his jacket. Hey Admin called him Cartman-like, and Cartman’s not fat goddamit, and Whale Blubber made a pie joke.

    It’s a bit like as if the health minister was on 40 a day, or the sports minister was obese, or the police minister was a klepto.

    Or are we looking forward to the day when he gets on a bus for a photo-op, and the bus driver makes him pay for two tickets?

  5. Matt L says:

    This is very much what I have thought also, it us a very tactical move but also a very defensive one. The councils job fire the CRL is really now to get their numbers very tight so the government can’t argue against it on that basis then work on selling it’s importance to the public both in Auckland but also outside of it.

  6. Matt says:

    The reelection of National, and now putting an Auckland-hating South Islander in charge of Transport, means that the business case for the City Rail Link has to be made absolutely rock-solid. I have no doubt that it will be, but any use of WEBs will need to have a lot of very thorough research and evidence in support in order to avoid a replay of the arrogant dismissal that we saw from Joyce.

  7. Progress? says:

    So Fatty takes over transport from Mr. Egghead (with overweight proportions).

    National - Walking is for the poor.

  8. Patrick R says:

    Well if Gerry was really smart and concerned about our ability to fund a ‘brighter future’ he would head this warning and get us off the road habit:

  9. Simon C says:

    @both Matts. Too late. National already has a doctored CRL biz case from its own treasury to knock back anything AC and Len Brown comes up with.

    We saw Nikki Kaye come out with that line on TVNZ 7s Backbencher Auckland Central candidates debate. And you can bet any time AC starts talking figures Gerry and the rest of the National gang will start waving around their treasury biz case. The govt has already nullified what public pressure could be built by AC. If AC come out with new figures it will become a case for the public of we can`t tell whose figures are right since the waters will be so muddied. For the govt, the more confusion the better.

    AC will have to attack from a different angle but National are doing a brilliant job as Jon said of nullifying Len Brown and the AC and any potential areas they could attack National from.

    The only thing I can think of is that AC attack National from the aspect that thay say Auckland has to fund this by themselves but then continually dismiss the different funding mechanisms AC come up. Therefore leading to criticism over interference and suppressing Auckland`s autonomy and decision making power that was a key reason for the super city establishment. If that criticism gained traction it could mean a lot of pissed off Aucklanders and might just create a backlash. If i was Brown I`d be keeping the “We`ve been undermined” sympathy tune in my pocket for potential use.

    Anyway, National will push a perceived lack of progress by Brown and say he overpromised and underdelivered.

    Come the next local elections watch for Brown to get the blame though the people of this city made the job so hard for him in electing a central govt so anti his vision for Auckland. When will Aucklanders start to hold central govt equally accountable for Auckland`s transport issues and development? I just find it absolutely ridiculous that Aucklanders vote in a mayor to try and transform the city but then vote in a central govt that will do their utmost to stop him! If that isn`t stupid I don`t know what is.

    And until Aucklanders realise that they need a local and central govt on the same page, they can forget any real transformation occuring.

  10. Simon C says:

    If it comes to the worst Len Brown and the AC`s public refrain should be “If you`re not going to put any money in then stop interfering and let Auckland get on with the job as it sees fit. This govt set up ythe super city to give Auckland the means to move ahead under its own steam but is instead constantly undermining that authority…”

    If National isn`t going to come to the party then the “interference” card needs to be played strongly. Hopefully National`s interference would become very unpopular so that at the very least AC can have the freedom to decide how they are going to pay for it.

  11. Matt L says:

    Simon - the council has already said they/AT will be producing a new BC that addresses the concerns and flaws of the governments review e.g. the government review assumed unlimited capacity on the streets to carry more buses and cars. The council will instead work out exactly how much road capacity there will be for each mode based on the finalised city centre master plan and work back from there.


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