Newsroom Pro's 9 things at 9: Final election debate and polls loom; Jet fuel 'crisis' awkward for National; Finally, a climate change debate

Jacinda Ardern mobbed for selfies at Victoria University. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we look at how the cutting of a fuel pipe has focused attention on some tricky issues for the Government right before the election.

1. This awkward jet fuel thing

My initial reaction on seeing the news on Sunday about a digger cutting the pipe for fuel supplies to Auckland was to see it as an inconvenience that would be managed carefully and would be unlikely to either be blamed on the Government or change the equation for this Saturday's election.

But the scale of the disruptions escalated yesterday and the inconveniences of the 'jet fuel crisis' and its unfortunate timing in the week before the election is turning into something more awkward. Air New Zealand started restricting ticket sales and cancelled dozens of flights. Airlines started offloading non-perishable export freight and the Government told staff and MPs to postpone essential travel.

Perhaps ironically and definitely accidentally, Bill English confirmed the travel restrictions while traveling to Blenheim with his entourage and media in tow. The optics of Bill English making chocolate in Blenheim were not great on a day when petrol stations in Auckland ran out of 95 octane petrol and emergency trucking rules were declared. Mayor Phil Goff even said on radio this morning he was prepared to use the traffic lights to clear a path for fuel trucks, which would in turn worsen the congestion on Auckland's roads.

Both television networks featured the 'jet fuel crisis' in breathless terms last night and the line-up of their items focused on both infrastructure deficits and the pain of population growth on health systems.

One TVNZ piece on the death of a newborn at a stressed Waikato Hospital was particularly distressing, while another featured a letter from Wellington GPs worried that stretched mental health services were costing lives. RNZ has regularly featured items about funding shortages at DHBs that have cost lives in recent days.

The underlying narrative in the political debate in recent months has been that a tight-fisted Government got caught napping by a population surge that has put immense pressure on the nation's transport, housing, health and education infrastructure.

In recent weeks the political debate has been more focused on Labour's tax policies and other issues, but the 'jet fuel crisis' has instead flipped the coverage back to the infrastructure issues in the crucial week before the election. The pipeline is unlikely to be working until next Tuesday.

To be fair to the Government, the fuel leak could have happened without the population surge and both colours of Governments over the last decade have made similar decisions not to invest in 'belt and braces' style double-ups of infrastructure to increase resilience. The usual cost-benefit analysis has judged the returns lower than the risks.

But comments from Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett yesterday about a failure to manage growth captured the mood and highlighted the scale of the infrastructure deficits.

“It is another example of our failure to put in place a management plan to take account of the increased scale and demand Auckland’s growth has created," Barnett said.

"The Wiri fuel depot capacity is still at the level of demand of 2012 – demand has grown 30 percent since then, but not the planning or management to accommodate that growth," he said.

One feature of the 2012 advice to the Government about the risks of relying on a single Refinery to Auckland (RAP) pipeline and the Wiri terminal was that a terminal outage (say through an explosion) could mean Auckland Airport would be without jet fuel for 12-18 months.

That 2012 advice recommended a potential emergency direct pipeline between the pipeline and the airport that bypassed the terminal at a cost of $15 million. Air New Zealand also advised it wanted more jet fuel storage at the airport at a cost of up to $60 million. In hindsight, both of those infrastructure spending items seem low-cost ways of risk mitigation for an airport that is now at the centre of New Zealand's commercial life and its tourism industry.

Barnett's frustration was evident.

“Yes we need to fix the latest issue with speed and urgency, but of equal importance, we need to accelerate decision making and provide infrastructure for today's population and its demand and provide for ongoing growth," he said.

“We have to stop living in the past, and get beyond an expectation that the scale of infrastructure needed to cope with our growth is good enough – it isn’t.”

2. Labour would look at second pipe

Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern saw the opportunity to refocus the debate back on the Government's infrastructure performance without over-committing to big new spending on a second pipeline. She and Robertson said the Government had the necessary capital on hand if necessary.

"I am worried that from cabinet papers in 2012 that vulnerability with our fuel supply was raised years ago," Ardern told reporters in Wellington the campaign trail.

"Instead of looking into options to make sure we had resilience and the infrastructure we needed, instead a handbook and a technical working group was created. Obviously, that hasn't been sufficient, and now motorists and those who are trying to move around the country and exporters are paying the price," she said.

"Work should have been done to ensure we were more resilient than this. One pipeline and one digger and New Zealand grinds to a halt."

Asked if she would commit a Labour Government to a full second pipeline to Marsden Point, she said: "I think we need to look at options to build our resilience. Whether that's storage or additional pipelines, work clearly needed to be done."

The Government has called in military tankers, drivers and ships to help supply Auckland with petrol and diesel, but is not able to replace the jet fuel transported through the only line between the Marsden Point refinery and the Wiri oil services terminal near the Airport.

Fuel supplies for trucks and cars in Auckland remain in place, although Z Energy reported over 10 of its service stations in Auckland had stopped supplying 95 octane fuel as it prioritised movements of 91 octane petrol and diesel, which 90 percent of vehicles can use.

Judith Collins said this afternoon the Government was actively supporting industry efforts to address the disruption.

She said weight restrictions have been lifted by 15 per cent for fuel tankers, along with removing restrictions on when fuel can be delivered to service stations and truck stops, allowing fuel tankers to use bus and transit lanes and extending the permissable driving hours where it was safe to do so.

Air New Zealand also announced it flew a wide-bodied 777-200 aircraft to Wellington from Auckland with just crew to pick up fuel before a long-haul flight from Auckland.

It said this was partly due to declining supplies in the Pacific. In recent days, long haul flights have been stopping in Fiji and elsewhere to top up on fuel.

3. Campaigning through the rain

Ardern's rapturous reception from students at Victoria University later in the day served only to highlight the contrast with the television pictures of Bill English making truffles in a white chef's uniform in a chocolate-making factory in Blenheim.

Ardern's performance and the response was all the more remarkable for happening outside in the rain and after Ardern lost her grandmother early yesterday morning. Both English and Winston Peters sent her condolence messages.

Ardern said during a campaign stop at a Newtown Medical Centre in Wellington early in the afternoon she would take time off from her campaigning on Friday to attend her grandmother's funeral.

She then went on to Victoria University where hundreds of students mobbed her in the main 'hub' open area in the University's Kelburn Campus.

She spoke for several minutes to the crowd about her time as a student at Victoria in a cold damp flat and the aspirations many young New Zealanders had for home-ownership. She urged them to vote for Labour and to 'pay it forward' for future generations.

Ardern then stayed on to talk to students and take countless selfies on a cold and damp day for over an hour. That cannot have been easy after a gruelling six-week campaign of constant travel and after hearing the news of her grandmother's passing.

Her ability to relate to all the crowds in such an effervescent way throughout the campaign has been remarkable. Perhaps more surprisingly, Bill English has also clearly enjoyed the constant meeting with groups of voters and selfie requests. Ardern said last night in this useful 21 minute interview with John Campbell she had found the campaign trail an energising experience.

It clearly has been for Bill English too. He has also mastered the art of being a 'retail' politician, including dealing with the constant requests for pictures and selfies that are then blasted out into voters' own social networks. One measure of relative performances on the trail would be the 'selfie ratio'.

My guess is that Ardern has been doing two or three for every one of English's, but that he often does three or four events a day to her two. No doubt, some clever data scientist could work out from Facebook how broadly each leaders' selfies have filtered out in New Zealand's social networks.

4. A battle in TukiTuki over water

Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva and Shane Cowlishaw continued their North Island regional pre-election tour to Napier and Hastings yesterday.

Shane looked closely at the electorate battles in TukiTuki (where National's Lawrence Yule faces a battle to retain Craig Foss' seat) and in Napier where Stuart Nash is expected to retain his.

Shane found an intense battle over water has gripped politics in the Hawkes Bay, including a protest yesterday over a water conservation order. It may well have implications for the result.

The application by five conservation and recreation groups for the order would see water limits introduced on both parts of the Clive and Ngaruroro rivers, something those gathered to protest say will decimate both their livelihoods and the Hawke’s Bay region.

“The thing is, water is Hawke’s Bay, that’s what makes it what it is,” tractor mechanic Wayne Martin told Shane.

“There’s a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes that these guys in offices don’t see.”

Martin was at the rally with friend Trevor Sandilands, who sells tractors. The pair believed that unless the issue of water is dealt with by locals, the whole region could come crashing down.

Across the country water has become one of the main election issues, but in Hawke’s Bay it’s been a flash point for some time. A massive gastroenteritis outbreak in Havelock North’s water supply in August last year was national news and Yule was Mayor at the time.

He is intrinsically linked with the disaster that is still fresh in the minds of those affected. His main opponent, Labour’s Anna Lorck knows this could be her best shot at an upset.

After standing and being soundly defeated by Foss in 2014, the PR agency owner has been building her support and says from what her team has been hearing the race will be tight.

Lorck’s daughter was one of the first to get sick from the gastro outbreak and she’s sure the event will affect how some people vote.

“Hundreds of people are still buying water, they don’t trust the water, there’s now a well in Hastings where there’s a constant stream of people coming in day after day and filling up their plastic water containers. That’s a third-world situation."

See Shane's full report on Newsroom Pro, where it was published first yesterday.

5. A microcosm of regional NZ's stresses

Shane also looked closely the Hawkes Bay's economic development plans in the context of the race for Napier.

Dubbed ‘Matariki’, the Hawke’s Bay regional economic development strategy was launched last year as a partnership between the Government, local authorities, and iwi, Shane reported.

It aims to encourage a collaborative approach to diversify the region’s economy, increase jobs and income, and boost investment.

The eventual goal is an extra 5,000 jobs and the plan was kicked off with funding to improve roads to Napier Port and money to explore the feasibility of an expansion to the National Aquarium of New Zealand.

An ambitious part of the plan, called Project 1000, aims to provide 1,000 new jobs for unemployed Hawke’s Bay workers over three years and reduce reliance on immigrant workers. All up, Matariki consists of 45 actions all up, for immediate implementation.

So what has happened since it was announced?

Stu McLauchlan, chairman of Business Hawke’s Bay, said the community was still waiting for the economic development agency to finalise its plans. Things had not moved as quickly as some would have hoped, which was partly due to getting all the councils on the same page.

“One of Hawke’s Bay’s weaknesses is its regional governance. I don’t want to get back into the amalgamation debate, but we are a region of 150,000 people roughly and we have got five councils,” he said.

See Shane's full report on Newsroom Pro, where it was published first yesterday.

6. Griffiths goes after Newsroom questions

Newsroom reported yesterday that deputy chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority resigned after an airline he's a significant shareholder in learned its competitor was about to be suspended before that airline knew itself.

Peter Griffiths' resignation, confirmed after a Newsroom investigation, follows disquiet in the aviation industry about an airline owner sitting on the board of the organisation that regulates safety and aviation rules.

Three airlines that compete with Griffiths' company have been subject to CAA action since he bought his stake in Great Barrier Airlines in April.

In the latest instance, on September 8, Griffiths told Great Barrier Airlines that rival operator Sunair was being grounded several hours before Sunair was notified. Griffiths and the aviation regulator’s board say it was “error of judgment”, and have apologised to Sunair.

The resignation follows a complaint to CAA chairman Nigel Gould by Sunair chief executive Dan Power last week, and approaches to the CAA by Newsroom.

See Maria Slade's report in full on Newsroom.

7. Finally, a climate change debate

Newsroom Co-Editor Tim Murphy attended last night's Worldwide Fund for Nature-Oxfam-University of Auckland debate on climate change.

Strangely, climate change has not featured in any of the leaders' debates and has not been high on the agenda on the campaign trail, despite clear differences between the main parties and a lot of interest among young voters in particular.

Tim reported the debate opened with a quickfire question in which all parties were asked to rate the importance of climate change as a policy priority. All, bar one, said it rated a 10 out of 10. Even New Zealand First. The outlier was National, whose representative Hunua MP Andrew Bayly gave it an 8.5 on that scale, to balance it with the need for a strong economy.

At the end of the one hour 45 minute, spirited policy debate, the last speaker was Greens' leader James Shaw. He zeroed in on the "one party that has not signed up" to the need for a carbon reduction law, carbon budgets, a carbon commission and more urgent action "and that is the party that currently runs the government."

Looking at Bayly, Shaw said: "That's one of the reasons I want National to go into Opposition as it means... the old guard might go off into the sunset and people like Andrew can move up and by the time they get back in you will have those Blue Greens in there."

Candidates from all leading parties but Act fronted for the debate.

National was certainly out on its own. Bayly, who chairs Parliament's local government and environment select committee, stood his ground arguing his party had signed the Paris climate agreement on behalf of New Zealanders and climate minister and deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett had been one of the first in the world to do so.

He rejected the need, as argued by some other parties, for a law to set targets for carbon reduction. "We signed the Paris agreement."

See Tim's full report on Newsroom here.

8. Coming up...

Bill English is on RNZ National with Kathryn Ryan for an extended interview this morning.

Both English and Ardern are campaigning in Auckland before the final election debate on TVNZ tonight. Shortly before the debate at 6 pm, TVNZ will release the results of its final Colmar Brunton poll.

Newshub (TV3) is expected to release its final Reid Research poll tomorrow night.

9. One fun thing

It's hard to laugh about Donald Trump calling Kim Jong Un 'rocket man' in a speech to the UN where he threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea.

Albert Brooks made an attempt which at least raised a wry smile with me: "At the U.N. Trump threatened to totally destroy North Korea. And then everybody had lunch."