Government by numbers

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
6 August, 2021

Reports about the Government reconsidering the controversial Auckland cycling bridge are welcome. At projected costs of $785 million, the bridge always looked excessively expensive. Its benefits, by comparison, were minuscule.

The Government’s U-turn was likely triggered by public opinion. A Newshub poll revealed 81.7 percent of respondents were against it, with only 11.9 percent in support and the rest undecided.

It is rare for this government to misread the electorate’s mood like that. It regularly tests its policies and messaging with polls and focus groups.

There is nothing wrong, in principle, with asking people which big projects they want – and whether they are willing to pay for them.

The real question is, why should this only happen behind closed doors in the Beehive?

For projects where both the costs and benefits are concentrated in one area, it would make sense to ask the local population in a referendum. Especially where costs cannot easily be recovered by user-pays schemes.

Politicians often wish to create legacies for themselves. A new bridge, stadium or library can be a physical testament to one’s time spent in office. If the politicians are lucky, these constructions may even be named after them eventually.

To the community, meanwhile, such vanity projects are just white elephants: expensive to build, troublesome to maintain, impossible to get rid of. In hindsight, it would have been better had these projects never been built.

So why have such regrets in hindsight when it is possible to prevent them in the first place?

A referendum should not just ask about whether the electorate wants the bridge, the stadium or the library. It should also spell out clearly how they will be paid for.

For example, a project like the cycling bridge (if funded locally) would cost the average Auckland ratepayer about $1,324. Building the bridge would thus mean a one-time 38 percent surcharge on the annual council rates.

Other countries are routinely deciding on their big projects via referendum. In Switzerland, the people have their say on stadia, school extensions and bicycle paths. Sometimes they approve them; other times they do not.

By engaging the electorate directly, the public is more likely to get what it wants and will pay for. And it limits politicians’ ability to use projects for their personal vanity or political gain.

Referenda are a much more transparent way of government by numbers than the poll-driven roll-out and roll-back of initiatives we have become used to.

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