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Insights 41: 3 November 2023
Podcast: Lord Sumption on free speech and the state of liberal democracy
New Research Note: Safe to follow: Faster access to medicine for Kiwis - Dr Eric Crampton
Podcast: Sir Bill English on the state of NZ politics

The road ahead
Dr Matthew Birchall | Research Fellow |
Now that the special votes have been counted, it is time to get down to the nitty-gritty of forming a government. The likely coalition partners National, ACT and New Zealand First will have to navigate political potholes and the odd speedbump if they are to form an effective relationship. 
One policy area where there is significant consensus, though, is transport.  
All three parties want to see the back of light rail and end the Labour government’s Road to Zero safety campaign, which involved reducing speed limits from 100km/h to 80km/h across parts of the state highway network. National and ACT are also eager to introduce new funding and financing mechanisms for roading. 
National’s policy is focussed on reviving Steven Joyce’s Roads of National Significance. This would entail the construction of major routes such as a Warkworth to Wellsford expressway and a North West Alternative State Highway in Auckland. There is a strong emphasis on the twin pillars of safety and efficiency. 
National has also promised to make greater use of private capital. Value capture and cost recovery tools, toll roads where appropriate, and equity financing from entities like the Super Fund or global investors have all been earmarked as critical funding sources. A new National Infrastructure Agency will collaborate with NZTA to secure and manage these funding deals.  
Encouraging private capital and international investment chimes with ACT’s policy platform. ACT has also pledged to use public-private partnerships and toll roads to turbocharge road development and maintenance. 
Like National, ACT proposes the establishment of a 30-year infrastructure pipeline that connects central Government, the Infrastructure Commission, and regional councils. If the Government cannot build a road that Kiwis demand because of funding constraints, then domestic and international investors would have the opportunity to bid for the right to construct and operate it, collecting tolls for a specified period before returning control to the Crown.  
ACT’s proposal has the advantage of moving New Zealand closer to a true user-pays system. This would provide a practical solution to the funding constraints that have historically hobbled the National Land Transport Fund. 
New Zealand First is more mercurial. They support National’s plan to build a new tunnel through Mount Victoria in Wellington, but their election manifesto lacks detail.  
The road to forming a government can be rocky and riddled with potholes. But in transport, at least, the broad direction of travel is clear. 

Engineering new outcomes
Max Salmon | Research Fellow |
The election is now firmly behind us, and the shape of the Sixth National Government of New Zealand will soon emerge. Likely coalition partners National and ACT have staunchly advocated for deregulation in their election campaigns. 

But how effective will this red-tape shredding enterprise be? GMO (genetically modified organism) regulation will be a useful litmus test. 

New Zealand has a historic aversion to genetically modified organisms, not dissimilar to the country’s irrational ideological opposition to nuclear power. Resistance to GMOs peaked in the late 1990s, culminating in the passing of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996. This piece of legislation has prevented commercial use of GMOs ever since.  

This situation is economically disadvantageous for New Zealand. GMOs have been proven safe and highly productive – consider the success of GMO cotton and canola in Australia. We are an agricultural nation, with agriculture accounting for 62.8% of our total exports in 2022. Our primary industries are our backbone, and GMO is a boon to agriculture. Yet the HSNO inhibits our agricultural sector from becoming more efficient, productive, and sustainable.  

Gene-editing is currently harnessed globally to enhance crops in ways that mitigate the environmental footprint of farming. Advancements include providing disease resistance (reducing reliance on herbicides), enhancing soil nutrient uptake (diminishing the need for fertilizers), and bolstering drought tolerance. Furthermore, gene-editing can improve the nutritional profiles of various foods while simultaneously curbing food wastage by increasing product shelf-life. 

For example, consider the apple tree breeding techniques mentioned by the New Zealand Society of Plant Biologists’ panel on GMO. Traditional apple trees take decades to breed. At least five years are required for an apple tree to reach the flowering stage, and six to seven generations are needed to develop a new variety. However, precise gene editing can reduce the flowering period to less than a year, greatly accelerating the breeding of novel apple varieties.  

This simple process is completely indistinguishable from natural genetic evolution and benefits NZ’s internationally regarded fruit cultivars. Yet, it is barred by the HSNO. 

New Zealand’s Royal Society, Productivity Commission, and Society of Plant Biologists have all called for change. 

National has announced an intention to reform New Zealand's GMO regulations. Its ability to do so productively and comprehensively will be a litmus test for its broader anti-red-tape agenda.

Heritage pipes
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
The Wellington City Council is juggling a few financial priorities at the moment.   

The top priority is to clear as many curb-side parking places as possible, to make way for bike lanes. This is a pressing issue. Some of the new lanes accommodate as many as four cyclists per day.   

Then there’s the project to strengthen the old Town Hall. Initially estimated at a paltry $40 million back in 2013, the projected cost has increased slightly to somewhere between $250 and $329 million.   

Some people seem to think that’s a lot. But at only about $4,000 per Wellington household, it remains a bargain. The Town Hall is a charming example of neo-renaissance architecture. It also has world class acoustics for classical music. So what if only a miniscule fraction of those paying for its repair wants to use it?  

Much further down the council’s list of priorities is repairing Wellington’s ageing and leaky sewerage pipes. Frankly, it’s hard to see why such a vanity project should receive funding. But malcontents have been complaining that, because of the leaks, a fair amount of raw sewerage ends up in the harbour.   

Successive councils did their best to ignore this trivial problem, but the anti-raw-sewerage brigade finally gained traction. In 2020, the repairs were designated a Critical Project. They might have succeeded much sooner, had they adopted the tactics of the heritage building lobby.  

Wellington’s most cherished heritage site must surely be the Gordon Wilson Flats on the Terrace. A few philistines say the flats are a dirty, derelict, graffiti-ridden eyesore, and an earthquake risk to boot. But to connoisseurs of fine architecture, the building is a paragon of 1950s modernist high-density social housing. Similar buildings are a commonplace legacy of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe, but the style is rare in New Zealand.  

Victoria University of Wellington, which owns the flats, would like to demolish them to make way for a building it can actually use. Fortunately, our heritage laws prevent such cold-hearted vandalism. Owners cannot simply demolish their buildings just because they own them.  

The Town Hall is also a heritage building, so the Council could not demolish that, either. Its heritage status convinced a majority of councillors that the only option was to repair it.   

So, perhaps the best way to future-proof Wellington’s (Victorian-era) sewerage system would be simply to designate it a heritage site. 

On The Record
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