Policy wildfire: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins ditches several transport, climate policies

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has fired up the incinerator and thrown a number of policies on the flames as the Government continues its refocus on the cost of living and recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle.

This policy wildfire along with previous reprioritisations are estimated to save the Government about $1 billion. This will be reallocated to help Kiwis with the cost of living. It comes as the Government also announces significant increases to benefits and Superannuation.

Many of the policies either being axed or deferred are in the transport space. Waka Kotahi will now be placing its attention on the significant recovery and rebuild efforts required after Cyclone Gabrielle. That includes the roughly 400km of state highway damaged by the weather event.

"I want New Zealanders to know the Government is doing its bit and is cutting its cloth to suit the times we are in," Hipkins said.

"Some of these things we're delaying or stopping mean a lot to us. But we're taking the hard decisions because we know Kiwis are also making some tough calls.     

"It will give Ministers and wider government more bandwidth to deal with cost of living issues and the cyclone recovery."

Hipkins said the announcements on Monday may not be the last of the Government's reprioritisation programme.

"My expectation is that Ministers will continue to prioritise their own work programmes, including by re-scoping plans and amending policy where necessary."

On the scrap heap is the Government's $568 million Clean Car Upgrade - the so-called 'cash for clunkers' scheme - which was to be funded through the Climate Emergency Response Fund. 

The idea behind the Clean Car Upgrade was to provide support to low- and middle-income households to scrap their dirty, high-emitting vehicles for environmentally-friendly vehicles. This would lead to lower transport costs for families and protect them from future high fuel prices, the Government said at the time. 

The Clean Car Upgrade was announced in May last year alongside the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP), the Government's plan for how it intends to cut New Zealand's emissions as it works towards the net zero carbon emissions by 2050 goal.

The Government's also stopping the social leasing car scheme, which would lease clean cars to low income families. It was "proving difficult to implement", the Government said.

Hipkins said it's not clear this is the most effective way to increase the uptake of low-emission vehicles.

"Several of the communities where it was to be trialled have been affected by the recent weather."

The Prime Minister said the climate policies discussed on Monday "would have made a very small contribution to our overall emissions reductions targets". These targets haven't changed and savings may be found in other areas.

He denied this sent a message that the Government doesn't care about climate change. He said it sent a message that the Government is focused on reducing emissions in the most efficient way and in a way that doesn't unnecessarily increase costs to households.

A Waka Kotahi proposal to lower the speed limit on hundreds of kilometres of New Zealand's state highway network has also nearly all been torched.

Changes will now only be made to the most dangerous 1 percent of state highway rather than the more than 500km proposed last year by the transport agency. 

Where changes are proposed, Waka Kotahi will consult "meaningfully" with the affected communities, Hipkins said. Targeted reductions will be made in areas around schools, maraes and in small townships state highways run through.

"That means speed limits will reduce in the places where there are the highest numbers of deaths and injuries and where local communities support change. We will continue to make targeted reductions in the areas immediately around schools and marae and in small townships that a state highway runs through."

The Government set four transport targets within the ERP, including reducing the total kilometres travelled by cars by 20 percent by 2035 by providing better travel options. 

Hipkins announced on Monday that the Government's refocusing its goal of increasing and improving public transport as an alternative to driving to just five main centres - Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch.

Light Rail in Auckland will continue, but it will be phased, Hipkins said.

"Reducing transport emissions is critical to achieving New Zealand’s climate change targets, but we need to focus our efforts on the areas where we can achieve the greatest reductions, such as our biggest cities," said Hipkins.

"With around a third of New Zealand’s population estimated to live in our biggest city, it’s where we can make the largest single gains in future-proofing transport systems to tackle congestion and reduce emissions.   

"Work on Auckand Light Rail will continue alongside other city-shaping investments like a second Waitematā Harbour Crossing, more rapid busways, and better connections to growth areas like the North-West.

"But just like the London Underground didn’t suddenly appear fully formed, and in fact took many years to develop, Auckland Light Rail will happen in stages – with the first stage expected to be confirmed by the middle of this year.

"There’s nothing new in taking a staging approach to significant transport projects. The Wellington Northern Corridor and Northern Busway projects, for example, are being delivered by successive governments in stages."

Hipkins noted that the Waikato Expressway, which started in 1993 with the Bombay Hills to Mercer connection, only finished last year.

"Auckland Light Rail is no different. Staging the rollout will align it with other critical transport investments, particularly the second Waitematā Harbour Crossing.

"Investing in a modern Auckland where people can get around, where there’s less congestion and cleaner travel options is the least the city should expect. Our Cabinet is absolutely agreed on that."

Another environmental policy getting thrown into the tip for now is the Government's container return scheme. It's been deferred to a later date.

This is where a refundable deposit (about 20 cents) is included in the price of purchasing plastic, glass, metal and paper drinking containers. Consumers could then return their empty containers and get that deposit back. 

The scheme, which was expected to begin in 2025, was meant to incentivise people to recycle. But some modelling found it could lead to an average additional cost for households of between $78 and $103 a year, even if they did return all their containers for a refund. 

The Government said it doesn't want to impose additional costs on families at this time.

Meanwhile, Hipkins also announced the Government will not be going ahead with legislation to make the voting age 16 at general elections.

Last year, after the Supreme Court declared the voting age of 18 was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act, then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Government would draft legislation to bring the age down. She said it was an opportunity for politicians to share their views and vote.

However, it always looked destined to fail as any changes to the general election voting age would likely need three-quarters support in Parliament - and both National and ACT are opposed.

But Hipkins said there would be a focus on lowering the voting age for local elections with legislation intended to be introduced this term. It would be considered by the next Parliament.

Changes to the legislation for our local elections only require a normal 50 percent majority.

A separate process sparked by the Supreme Court declaration is also underway. A Select Committee is considering the declaration and earlier this month invited public submissions on it.

The Government's plan to tackle alcohol marketing, pricing and sponsorship issues will be delayed until April 2024. Last year, it was signalled the Government could make moves in this space in March. Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick has a Member's Bill to ban alcohol sponsorship in sport.

"These are areas that need time to investigate properly and ensure there are no unintended consequences," the Government said. "For example, when community groups are doing it tough, the Government doesn’t want to see any restrictions on sponsorship increasing costs for community sports teams."

The Government said it is also deferring public consultation on a new test to determine who is a contractor and who is an employee.

"A recent Employment Court ruling has significant implications on the legal definition of a contractor, so rather than pushing ahead with our proposed consultation on changes we will put our work on hold until all appeals of the case are heard."

The Employment Court last year ruled that Uber drivers are employees and not contractors. 

This isn't the first set of major policy reprioritisation announcements. In February, Hipkins announced the end to the public media merger of TVNZ and RNZ, decided not to proceed with the social insurance scheme this term, and pushed the hate speech work to the Law Commission. He's also expected to make an announcement around the future of Three Waters at some point.