Labour’s and the Greens’ Reactionary Road Plans

On 28 January Jacinda Ardern announced the general election date. The following day, Grant Robertson unveiled a $12 billion spend on road, rail, schools and hospitals infrastructure: clearly the start of Labour’s pitch to the electorate. Labour is calling the plans the Big New Zealand Upgrade. Not all the $12 billion is actually new. Labour is pulling the usual stunt of including what had already been committed: in this instance December’s announcement on money for school building upgrades. The bombshell in the package is the money for road schemes. Out of the $6.8 billion for transport, roads gets the lion’s share with $5 billion. Rail, cycling and walking share just $1.8 billion.

The plans for road schemes are outrageously at variance with Labour’s supposed commitment to reducing emissions. They show up Labour’s reactionary side. In fact, Labour is taking over the National government’s ‘Roads of National Significance’ building policy. No doubt Labour’s strategists think this is awfully clever, adopting a National Party policy to neutralise criticism from the right. If this is sign of things to come this election year, heaven help us.

Last November the National Party launched a petition to get the government to adopt plans for a four-lane expressway between Ōtaki and Levin. On our New Year holiday travel along that route my partner and I saw National’s ‘Four Lanes to Levin’ posters and laughed at the party’s unfailing backwardness. Four weeks on, however, ‘Four Lanes to Levin’ features on Labour’s website as one of its new roading schemes.

There is a duality about government infrastructure spending plans. It is not all as progressive as Labour would have us see it. Yes, we need public spending on infrastructure development (not expressways though!). At the same time it is the type of public spending that business, the enemy of public service spending, approves of. Capitalist interests, have been lobbying for more infrastructure spending for obvious reasons. Construction firms, and all manner of subsidiary companies, stand to gain handsomely from the stream of public money. It’s corporate welfare.

There is no need for public money to be siphoned off into private profit. A government that has social-democratic pretentions should re-form a Ministry of Works and undertake projects itself, using directly-employed, permanent-contract workers with union rights.

As it is, Labour’s transport infrastructure policy is utterly reactionary, with some sops to assuage the Greens. One might ask how the government’s roading plans sit with its trumpeted Zero Carbon Act. The answer, of course, is not at all. The Big New Zealand Upgrade shows just how hollow Labour’s talk on climate change really is. We in the ISO condemned the Zero Carbon Bill as toothless, as did former Green leader Russell Norman. These roading plans prove that the Zero Carbon Act is merely a cover intended to hide inaction.

The Green Party is part of the present government. Co-leader James Shaw is the minister for climate change. Other Green MPs hold government office. How have they reacted to the big spend on roads? Well, not by resigning! A 30 January report on RNZ quoted former Green MP Sue Bradford saying of the infrastructure announcement “This really is a slap in the face for the Greens in terms of priorities and undermines whatever credibility Labour has in terms of the environment as well, in terms of dealing seriously with climate change.” Who could not agree? The same and other reports said that Shaw defended the government’s plans.

As promoters of the toothless Zero Carbon Act, and now defenders of road building, the Green MPs have shown that they are more committed to their government positions than to the cause that animated their original involvement in politics. The Greens are trapped in their contractions because they support the capitalist system that exploits both the natural environment and labour. Their politics are limited to getting minor reforms through parliament. This gradualness won’t do; the climate catastrophe is upon us. And the situation is urgent. Genuine ecological politics means revolutionary socialism.