The Tale of the Peacocke and the Two Bennetts

It has been a year of remarkable transformation. Back in July, it looked like the National Party was cruising towards a fourth term in government, with the Labour Party floundering in the polls at 24%. It would have been hard to comprehend that the Leader of the Labour Party, albeit a difference person, would be our Prime Minister a few months later.

There has also been a remarkable transformation locally in Hamilton. Those of us that have been following politics in Hamilton will know the eternal optimism of Hamilton East MP David Bennett about our great city, which is “on the cusp of something special”.

Sadly, this all came crashing down on 19th October 2017 when Winston Peters announced that he would not be #BackingBill.

So how bad is the new government? Only one week after the first day of the 52nd Parliament, Mr Bennett declared on his Facebook page that “they are ruining this country”.

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That was quick! His parliamentary speech on 8th November sums up the new mood for the country, and the outlook is bleak.

“This country has embarked on a socialist experiment in the last few weeks. It’s an experiment that is doomed to failure. It is an experiment that is socialism at its worst, and it is in this country for the first time.”

During this speech, Mr Bennett declared that the new Labour-led government “wants to keep the poor people poor” and that they “[don’t] want anybody to get an education so they can lift themselves out of poverty”. Why? Because “socialists always want to make people dependent on the state”.

Mr Bennett compared the new government to North Korea, saying that New Zealand is the only other country in the Asia-Pacific Region taking on a socialist agenda, somehow forgetting about our largest trading partner, the People’s Republic of China.

According to Mr Bennett, it is Waikato that has lost the most out of this socialist agenda.

“These socialists are going to spend that money on trams in Auckland, going to Auckland airport from downtown Auckland so that the privileged elite of the socialist class can go on their flights overseas, and the good people of the Waikato are going to miss out on that economic growth advantage.”

To conclude his speech, Mr Bennett declared that socialism is well and truly alive in New Zealand, “but it will be dead at the next election and all of you with it”, pointing to the Labour, NZ First and Green MPs across the room.

Of course, he is not meaning that they will literally be dead. I’m assuming only socialists would do such a thing.

This is a side of Mr Bennett that I hadn’t seen before – he appears to have exchanged eternal optimism for relentless negativity. For most of his parliamentary career, he has been a government MP and a positive champion for National’s agenda. He had his moments criticising the opposition while in government, but the tone of his messaging would often return to how great everything is under the National-led government.

The Land of Peacocke

One quote of Mr Bennett’s caught my eye in a recent Waikato Times story. The article covered the proposed 16.5% rates increase by Hamilton mayor Andrew King. Mr Bennett was very critical of the proposal, stating:

“It would indicate, with a one-off rate increase like that, that there is some structural deficiency within council – they’ve missed something – or it would indicate there is something else going on to do with the fact they know there is an expensive growth cell coming their way because they’ve made a political decision to go to that area.”

Wait, what? Wasn’t this the growth cell the eternally optimistic government minister David Bennett was supporting only 5-6 months ago? The expensive growth cell Mr Bennett refers to is Peacocke, the site where the previous government announced the $1 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund.

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For those people wondering what Peacocke is, it is a rural area within the Hamilton City boundaries in the south of the city. It has been ear-marked as a future suburb of Hamilton since the late 1980s but the infrastructure costs have always been prohibitive. As Mr Bennett said, Peacocke has definitely been “a long time coming”. The city has continually put Peacocke in the too-hard basket for many years, preferring to sprawl further and further north in Flagstaff and Rototuna.

What makes Peacocke more expensive than the new suburbs in the north of Hamilton? A big part of it is to do with the transport infrastructure required, in particular a new bridge across the Waikato River.

In July 2017, the previous government announced that Hamilton would be receiving $272 million from the Housing Infrastructure Fund specifically for the Peacocke development, which would enable the development of 3700 new houses over the next ten years, and a total of 8100 houses over 30 years. $90 million of the funding is from the New Zealand Transport Agency towards the new bridge across the Waikato River and other transport infrastructure.

It is clear that Mr Bennett was a supporter of the Peacocke development. So why the change of heart now?

It should be no surprise to him that rates would have to increase to pay for new growth cells like Peacocke. The $182M invested in the Peacocke development by the National government (not including the separate NZTA investment) is actually a 10-year interest-free loan that Hamilton City Council, and Hamilton ratepayers, have to pay back. The election campaign statement “8,100 new houses in Hamilton thanks to our $1b Housing Infrastructure Fund” should have also thanked the ratepayers of Hamilton City that are ultimately picking up the bill.

The government loan is also a drop in the ocean compared to the total funding required for growth in Hamilton. If Hamilton City Council put its focus on in-fill housing (approx. 50% of total new residential builds), finishing the current Rototuna growth cell and unlocking Peacocke, it will cost approximately $1.28 billion. Of that $1.28 billion, about $540 million would be required specifically for Peacocke. The Waikato Times article also stated:

The southwestern Peacocke growth cell is comparatively expensive, Bennett said, and council should be looking at the most cost effective places around the city.

If he genuinely believes this, why did the National government approve the investment in Peacocke after reviewing the business case from Hamilton City Council? Why did the business case stack up early 2017 but it doesn’t in late 2017?

If the councils have to pay back the government, why the surprise when there is a significant rate rise proposed to cover growth pressures?

If Hamilton City Council were to follow Mr Bennett’s post-election position on Peacocke, they would still need to invest $1.05b into growth according to a recent Hamilton City Council briefing, except this growth would continue to be imbalanced and focused on the north of the city. Either way, there are huge growth costs that Hamilton City Council will have to cover.

Local Government New Zealand, the collective voice for councils around New Zealand, have been calling for alternative funding mechanisms other than rates and debt to fund new developments. Mr Bennett was part of the government that largely ignored these calls. The previous government’s decision to offer support in the form of an interest-free loan means that ratepayers ultimately have to cover the cost.

Newfound negativity

Mr Bennett’s new position on Peacocke appears to reflect his newfound negativity as an opposition MP, and it appears to be a major u-turn on his position as a government MP. The 16.5% rates increase is hardly being put forward by someone that you’d classify as one of the ‘socialist elite’ either – it has been put forward by Hamilton Mayor Andrew King, who has been quite open at many events of his support for the National Party and the agenda of the previous government.

I’m sure this is a position Mayor King would rather not be in, and to some extent he will probably get a lot of criticism for proposing a double-digit rate rise when he and the other councillors have limited other funding options to consider.

I don’t have any issues with u-turns, flip-flopping or changing stance on an issue if it’s based on solid evidence. I don’t think that is something that anyone should be punished for. However, like all of Mr Bennett’s hyperbolic statements about the downfall of New Zealand as we know it, the change of stance regarding Peacocke doesn’t appear to be based on any evidence at all.

If he is truly concerned about the potential rates increase for Hamilton City, perhaps he could acknowledge that the previous government’s inaction to provide local government with alternative funding mechanisms to deal with growth pressures, meaning that councils experiencing high growth will have to raise rates.

Taking the anti rates-hike position will be a popular one for Mr Bennett, but it is a disingenuous position that deflects any responsibility of the previous government for this situation. If he wants to be a constructive local advocate for Hamilton in parliament, it is not too late to start advocating for new funding mechanisms for local government.

I would respect him more if he acknowledged the previous government’s shortcomings in this area and said in the interest of Hamiltonians, we need to look at other funding options for local government more than ever.

I believe this would be much more constructive use of his parliamentary time than the doom-and-gloom rhetoric we’ve seen so far, plus it’d be a smart move in the long-run if he ever considered local government after retiring from parliament.

But for now, I suspect we’ll just hear more about the apocalyptic socialist hellscape that is our formerly great country.

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