30 Apr 2015

Port saga puts councillors in a bind

6:56 am on 30 April 2015

Auckland councillors will today struggle to find the navigation lights they need to lead them through the increasingly thick political fog of the Ports of Auckland stand-off.

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Photo: RNZ / Todd Niall

Four weeks on from asking the council-owned port company to halt the almost 100-metre extensions of Bledisloe Wharf, councillors have yet to get a clear and detailed reply.

Today they may be asked to back a strategy to solve the stand-off. One option could be to allow only one of the two extensions to be built. Or one and a bit. Or none. Or both.

So how well-armed for this discussion are the 21 politicians who are stewards of the half billion dollar Ports of Auckland, the country's biggest port by value of cargo?

Ports of Auckland has so far withheld any detailed business case that would allow councillors to weigh up the commercial risk of denying the company the extra berth space it said it needed.

Nor do the councillors have any clear sense of broad public opinion to give them electoral comfort in their decision-making. Those seeking re-election will be on the campaign trail in just over a year.

Protesters on Queen's Wharf.

Hundreds turned out at a protest rally last month Photo: RNZ / Murielle Baker

A slick and well-funded campaign opposing further port expansion culminated in a protest rally last month which stung the politicians into action. Two legal actions to try to halt the $22 million project are a further sign of strong feeling on the issue.

But a Ports of Auckland public opinion survey, understood to show overall support for the expansion, has not seen the light of day and a New Zealand Herald survey shows opinion evenly divided. No guiding light there.

The port company is the council's biggest commercial asset, and chipped in a dividend of $66.6 million to the ratepayer's coffers last year.

While the council itself is required to deal with the port at "arms length" via its investment agency ACIL, the port has been actively courting individual councillors to explain its case.

Commercial consquences unclear

The case has a compelling narrative. Cargo volumes, vehicle imports, container numbers and the size of cruise and cargo ships are all growing. So is efficiency. But berth and working space is not, and the squeeze is on already.

Exactly what is the cost in dollars and cents of not allowing the extensions? That is a detail that's missing. Ports of Auckland's line is "Trust us, we know what we are doing. And the commercial consequences of not doing what we want, will be dire."

On Sunday, the well-oiled Stop Stealing our Harbour campaign is staging a march along Quay Street, adjacent to the working port. A reminder for politicians of the world they live in.

The councillors have some cause for feeling grumpy. Ports of Auckland did not give them a heads-up, when it lodged resource consent applications last year, at a time when port expansion was already a political hot-potato.

The council's own consenting office did not red-flag the applications more widely within the organisation. The two applications were lodged separately, and weeks apart.

The council's agency ACIL knew, but did not alert its parent, whose interests it is meant to represent.

When the surprise was unveiled in the news media in February, the port company had the consents in the bag without public notification, a construction contract let, and was ready to roll.

Ports of Auckland's chairperson Graeme Hawkins last week on Radio New Zealand rubbed salt into the political wounds by underlining that seven or eight legal opinions supported the directors' view that their prime obligation was to the company, not the shareholder.

The reverse applies to the councillors, whose prime obligation is to the wider city, and interests broader than purely commercial ones. So if asked to choose a route today, which way will they go?

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