OPINION: Last week, the umpteenth repeat of the famous Fawlty Towers ”Germans” episode was playing on my TV. Despite having seen it countless times, I had to stop and watch a hilariously concussed, goose-stepping John Cleese say “don’t mention the war” in front of tearful Germans.
This reminded me of our present Wellington City Council, where the rule seems to be “don’t mention the airport runway extension”.
The issue was a major one last term. Never mind that extending the runway would greatly increase greenhouse emissions, our Green mayor got right behind it. And despite the airport extension arguably being corporate welfare, the Labour deputy mayor, and now our present mayor, strongly supported it, too.
Council chief executive Kevin Lavery was also a big fan, naming the runway extension in early 2016 – along with the Film Museum and Convention Centre, which also seems to be in a state of limbo – as an area in which he wanted to make “real progress”.
Lavery and mayor Justin Lester were also involved in brokering the “Capital Express” route deal, which saw Singapore Airlines fly from Singapore to Canberra to Wellington, and receive a nice council subsidy in the process.
Surely if a direct flight from Singapore was successful then that would show that a runway extension would bring even bigger planes and more tourists to enjoy Te Papa, the cable car and the Wellington Seve … oops.
With the regular exception of councillors Sarah Free, David Lee and Helene Ritchie, the council agreed to support extension plans and fund a feasibility study.
But during the mayoral campaign some leopards changed their spots. After initially supporting the extension, Nicola Young did more research and came out against it. Even runway-friendly councillor Jo Coughlan questioned the deal. There seemed little public appetite for the extension.
Yet since election day, we have heard very little about the extension from councillors. Has our mayor been going around in a Cleese-like manner saying, “Don’t mention the runway extension. I did once but I think I got away with it.” Or has interest simply waned?
None of our new councillors have publicly supported the extension. Of the old guard, only Mayor Lester and “Swampy” Marsh have expressed support, and not for a while.
Can you blame everyone for keeping quiet? According to the airport, international arrivals have dropped by 9000 in the last year. However, Wellington-Auckland trips have increased.
I’m sure the airport would argue that the numbers would reverse if we had a longer runway, in the same way Roger Douglas argues that any failures of Rogernomics were because he wasn’t allowed to go far enough.
As for the Singapore route, even though it was touted as a great deal by subsidy supporters, Singapore Airlines recently announced that it was cutting back on flights to Wellington from August to October. To be fair, the cutback is only about 5 per cent and the airline said it is simply dealing with lower demand in the off-season. Surely demand will pick up in January with the glorious summer weather and the Wellington Seve … oops.
When Mayor Lester recently addressed anti-runway lobby group Guardians of the Bay, co-chair Dr Sea Rotman reported that, “Mr Lester stated that if the [Singapore] ‘Capital Express’ route take-up indicated a lack of demand, the runway extension would be taken off the table.”
Though a 5 per cent drop is hardly the sort of customer drop-off that happened with events like the Seven … oops … I’m sure it’s still far from the type of demand that he and other runway supporters had hoped for.
Since being elected, Mr Lester has won many friends. His response to the Kaikoura earthquake was exemplary, his support for council housing has widespread support, and his progressive council has been praised by both business and citizen groups. The mayor’s style of efficient but consensual leadership has drawn praise from councillors on all sides.
If the “Capital Express” route continues to be sluggish, then Lester would have good reason to do what I suspect the majority of his councillors and Wellington’s ratepayers want him to do and throw the plans for this hazardous boondoggle off the table and deep into the dangerous 9-metre Lyall Bay swell.
– Dave Armstrong, The Dominion Post