Joe Hendren

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Report from Mt Albert Byelection: The Transport Forum

Just got back from a fiery Mt Albert Transport Forum, where the Mt Albert by election candidates faced over 100 people crammed into small lecture theatre at Unitech.

The meeting had a fantastic atmosphere - it was as good as the famous Aro Street election meetings in Wellington.

The fact that National announced their preferred option for Waterview only a few hours before the meeting gave it greater urgency and passion. To many locals, not only had politics arrived at the front door of their house, politics threatened to take their house completely.

National candidate Melissa Lee spoke first. Her opening words were a demand for water. She describes Waterview as 'a difficult issue' and said she felt for those in the 365 houses that would be lost due to the project. Really - is this the same woman who threatened many more houses with her 'above ground for me' proposal earlier this week. Attempted to make some noises about integrated ticketing and improving public transport. Lee also attempted some nasty dog whistle politics when she said a lot of burglaries were [the result of] people coming from South Auckland.

A comrade of mine, Lynda Boyd put it like this - "A meeting full of passionate Waterview residents who don't want to lose their houses and community, and a national candidate who needs to do her homework and learn a bit more about how to be respectful towards the general public". Similarly, on National Radio on Monday Laila Harre thought Lee's appearance on Q&A on Sunday demonstrated a "rather shrill and almost slightly nasty streak in terms of her communication towards David Shearer and people don't like that sort of stuff and won't respond well to it".

Act candidate John Boscawen spoke next. Act handed out their own a leaflet with an alternative route for Waterview. This only sought to confuse many locals who were worried this was the official plan. Yet on their map Act mislabeled Unitech as AUT University. The whole room roared with laughter when this was pointed out.

To be fair to John, his best moment came when he questioned a commitment to integrated ticketing just given by Lee. He pointed out National opposed a transport amendment bill to enable integrated ticketing in the last parliament, while Act supported it. Good point John.

Labour candidate David Shearer spoke about how Mt Albert needs an MP that will stand up for communities. He also said this community was about to be destroyed. He still backed the completion of the motorway, but only the tunnel option that was previously proposed by Labour. In his most memorable line, David Shearer said "If this motorway was being built for Paritai Drive or Remuera, we wouldn't be having this meeting"

Work is not expected to get underway until 2011, which also happens to be an election year. Shearer promised Labour would revisit the project if they became the government.

Green party co-leader Russell Norman started with a few slogans about the debate being between a green future and a grey past. Thankfully he soon dispensed with the slogans and used his sound knowledge of transport issues to directly address residents questions in a way that wasn't matched by the other candidates. He cited NZTA figures to show the Waterview motorway will be congested on the day it opens in 2015.

He talked about the Michael Joseph Savage memorial on Bastion Point and what that meant to people, and compared this with the Skytower - a syringe that is 'acts as a memorial to the Rogernomes'. It struck a nerve - a young woman with an Act party rosette responded with a single finger salute.

Norman made a strong case for prioritising public transport. For the same money that was going to be ploughed into Waterview, Auckland could have both the Avondale to Southdown rail link, and a rail line to the airport. He said he was not against the tunnel in the future, however he wanted the public transport investment to happen first. In 10 years time he suspected the Waterview connection would not be needed, particularly given the expected rise in the cost of oil.

Libertarianz candidate Julian Pistorius was predictable - let the market decide everything. He believed it was not up to the government to decide where to build roads. Property rights were sacrosanct - roads could only be built where people were willing to sell their properties. Its fair to say Pistorius was not taken particularly seriously by the audience - his manner was a bit arrogant at times, such in the way he claimed the other candidates 'don't know what they are talking about'. Perhaps Pistorius' only function was to make the Act members uncomfortable at the enthusiasm of their candidate for running roadshot over the 'property rights' of residents losing their homes. A few Act members left early.

Act candidate John Boscawen said the Waterview project should have been completed 15 years ago. Norman said the only reason there is not a surface motorway through this community is because this community had risen up to stop it. He promised to help the community fight the proposed motorway, saying we need money, experts and lawyers. He thought many lawyers would work pro-bono as the proposal was so stupid. He also saw a role for civil disobedience and protests outside the offices of Auckland National MPs.

At the conclusion of the debate, someone bought up the issue of Melissa Lee's alleged use of taxpayers money to enable a National party political video. There were loud chants of 'pay it back' from the Labour crowd at the back, a little piece of utu as 'pay it back' was the favourite of National party hacks following Labour's alleged overspending during the 2005 election. The added presence of Boscawen could well have made it sweeter.

The back of the room was a sea of large National and Labour party placards. No doubt they were there for the TV, but they did nothing to gain the votes of the locals who complained they could not see past.

Most that I spoke to afterward thought Norman won the debate. I should point out none of these people were Green party members. As for the audience, Norman gained by far the most applause for both his opening and closing statement.

Perhaps Shearer was second - another friend of mine accurately described his performance as Green-lite. I have tried to be fair to the candidates here - but Melissa Lee is clearly not the candidate the National party hoped she would be.

Update: Radio NZ is reporting Lee said people drove to the electorate from South Auckland, and that the new motorway extension could divert some of that traffic and criminals from Mt Albert. This and Not PC's comments confirm Lee made similar comments more than once - I wrote down her comment about burglaries at the time. On Newstalk ZB this morning she claimed 'I didn't actually say South Auckland' - oh yes you did - and the Radio NZ audio proves it. Given she said it more than once it will not be credible for National party spinmisters to claim it was a one off gaff. Later on Radio NZ she apologised to South Auckland people who were offended by her comments. Not PC seems to agree that Russell Norman won the debate and was the most well informed candidate - even if he disagrees with what Norman said.

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