The post-war multiplication of roads, cars and suburbs secured (and continues to secure) the National Party’s political success.
LABOUR voters from New Zealand’s towns and cities often marveled at the quality of rural roads.
Miles from anywhere, they would suddenly find themselves travelling on a brand-new, tar-sealed carriageway in a better state of repair than the cracked and pot-holed city streets where they lived.
This was, of course, in the 1950s and 60s, when the New Zealand economy was booming, and the politically dominant National Party could afford to indulge in a little harmless pork-barrelling.
It was, after all, along these fine new roads that the sheep and cattle trucks, the lorries piled high with wool bales, and the gleaming, stainless-steel milk-tankers made their way to the freezing-works, wool-stores and dairy factories that processed the nation’s primary exports.
Cockies were the backbone of the country – didn’t they deserve good roads?
The political economy of roading in New Zealand embraces a great deal more, however, than a few examples of old-fashioned pork-barrelling in the back-blocks. Urban voters might not have been able to miss the signs of National’s love affair with roads and trucks in the countryside, but for most of the past 50 years they’ve been blind to its larger and much more expensive manifestations in the metropolitan centres – especially Auckland. The central role which the National Party has played in the politics and economics of transportation has similarly been overlooked (For an excellent article on this subject by Dr Chris Harris try here.)
Primarily a private-sector activity, albeit one financed out of national and/or local taxation, the road-building business is particularly susceptible to political patronage (and, it must be said, corruption). The distinction to be made with railway construction and maintenance – especially in New Zealand – is very important in this respect. For most of its history this country’s railways have been state-owned enterprises, guarded by powerful trade unions, and offering correspondingly fewer opportunities for rewarding one’s private sector mates. Not surprisingly, New Zealand’s right-wing parties have tended to favour road over rail.
Of course there’s no point in building roads if there are no cars, trucks, motorbikes and busses to use them. If you’re the state sponsor of, or a private contractor in, the road-building industry, there’s nothing more expensive, or embarrassing, than an empty highway. So, once again, genuine competition from an inherently cheaper and more efficient rail network has always been a major problem for road builders. If the myriad opportunities for profit opened up by the invention of the internal combustion engine were to be successfully exploited, people had to be persuaded that it made more sense to transport themselves, and their goods, by road, in a motor vehicle, than by rail, on a train.
To activate the political economy of roading, however, one more component was required: an urban geography that made the building of roads and the acquisition of motor vehicles a matter of necessity rather than choice. The post-war suburban sub-division, located on the periphery of New Zealand’s big cities and unconnected (except in the case of Wellington and the Hutt Valley) to their key economic hubs by effective commuter rail services, became the perfect excuse for the National Party to sink millions into the construction of roads and motorways. In Auckland, National’s right-wing allies on the city council made certain of this commitment by canning the First Labour Government’s blueprint for a much more compact city based on an extensive, state-owned commuter rail network, and then tearing up the tracks of the heavily patronised trams.
The political economy of roads, cars and subdivisions inevitably produced a host of societal side effects – many of which proved to be of huge political advantage to the National Party.
The political genius of the post-war "car culture" lay in its ability to draw a critical percentage of the working-class (invariably the white percentage) into the atomised, deeply conformist, consumption-based communities of the post-war era. Once inside the magic circle of home and car ownership, the collectivist spirit of the 1930s and 40s began to fade, and workers’ political priorities changed. Safely ensconced in his new suburban bungalow, surrounded by people just like himself, and driving to work in his prized late-model automobile, the average white wage and salary earner wanted nothing more from "politics" than a rock-solid guarantee that what he had acquired, he would be allowed to keep.
By the turn of the century, those workers (overwhelmingly black) who remained materially dependent of public provision; whether in the form of state housing or public transport; soon realised that entry into "first-class", as opposed to "second-class", citizenship was only granted to those who owned a private car and a suburban home.
Urban liberals in 2009, hearing the comments of National’s candidate for the Mt Albert by-election, Melissa Lee: that the controversial extension of SH20 would "keep South Auckland criminals away from Mt Albert" angrily dismissed them as racist stereotyping. But to the electorate’s status-conscious Pakeha and Asian voters, Lee’s comments carried a very different message.
Both Lee and her aspirational audiences recognise something about Auckland’s motorways that her liberal critics prefer not to acknowledge: that they are both escape-routes and boundary-fences. The Waterview Diversion will carry South Auckland’s dark-skinned underclass safely past Mt Albert in exactly the same way as the Southern Motorway carries the smug burghers of Papakura past the mean streets of Mangere, Otara and Manurewa.
National’s Transport Minister, Stephen Joyce, understands this symbolic language. Perhaps not consciously, but deep in his conservative gut, he knows that a motorway hidden in a tunnel is a motorway stripped of its most important political benefits.
The Auckland that Peter Fraser’s government was planning to build, had it won the 1949 general election, would have housed the city’s residents in state-owned apartment blocks, built next to parks, and connected by cycle-ways. And every working day they would have been carried to and from work in electric railway units. The few motorways that were planned would have gone around Auckland, not through it. And, of course, these publicly housed and transported Aucklanders, just like their comrades in the Hutt Valley, would have voted overwhelmingly for Labour.
If pork-barrel-politics is taken to mean the money which politicians and political parties spend locally in order to secure their re-election, then the massive concrete sinews, which for 50 years have bound Auckland’s voters to the National Party’s dream of a million right-minded commuters, all driving down the motorway in their own cars, towards the hard-won security of their suburban firesides, must surely rank as its most effective application.
This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 21 May 2009.