A dramatic event in the last week of the New Zealand election campaign looked set to destabilise the Government’s re-election plans. Although it was a major development which continues to disrupt the travel plans of thousands of visitors and New Zealanders, the Government’s polling looks firm.
It was a worrying development for the Government, the last thing it would want in the week before an election: Government department staff told to limit air travel until at least next week, Government MPs told to stay in their electorates. Thousands of air travellers have had their plans disrupted every day. The election is on Saturday September 23.
The reason for the disruption is a hole in a pipe-line that delivers jet fuel from New Zealand’s refinery in Northland’s Marsden Point Refinery about 170 kilometers to a terminal in South Auckland to service Auckland International Airport.
The single ten inch pipe carries diesel, petrol and jet fuel at different times to storage tanks at Wiri.
Last week the control room at the Marsden Point Oil Refinery noticed a drop in pressure in the pipe. It signified a leak. A helicopter was launched and soon found the break.
Pumping stopped quickly preventing serious contamination of the surrounding area.
The impact has been enormous. Airlines have had their fuel allocations cut by seventy percent. Some Trans Tasman and long haul flights have been cancelled, some long haul flights leaving Auckland with light fuel loads are topping up in Sydney. On Thursday September 21, two days before Election Day, airlines cancelled flights to and from Houston, Sydney, Melbourne, Suva and Ho Chi Minh City. Some internal New Zealand flights have been cancelled each day.
The impact on the booming tourist industry is still being assessed.
Air New Zealand has given priority to passengers over freight so exporters of perishable high value products like fruit, fish and flowers are affected.
It feeds arguments that New Zealand’s infrastructure has been neglected by successive governments.
Some say a previous Labour government should have done more to secure the pipeline. Others say a New Zealand Oil Security Assessment Update by the NZ Institute of Economic Research for the Ministry of Economic Development five years ago in June 2012 should have produced some action by the current National Government.
The report warned that in case of disruption to the Wiri oil terminal or the Refinery-Auckland Pipeline (the RAP which now has a hole in it), supplies of diesel and petrol can be secured by tanker trucks and ships. However, “In the short term there are few alternatives for jet supply into Auckland.” Further, “Auckland Airport could be deprived of jet fuel with no feasible alternative for making good the supply.”
Disruption to jet fuel supplies “is not feasibly resolved by trucking because of the lack of both loading facilities and trucking capacity to move the volume required.”
The cost to New Zealand’s international reputation is immeasurable. One politician said we look like a hick joint that can’t even pump petrol.
Petrol and Diesel are being supplied to Auckland by road tankers, but jet fuel needs more careful handling. Tests are being made to check whether trucks can be used to deliver the fuel to the airport safely.
This is a major test for the Government’s claims to be excellent managers. In particular the Energy Minister Judith “Crusher” Collins is in the spotlight. Last year she was demoted to the Energy portfolio after running against Bill English for the leadership.
There is no official word yet on how the pipeline was damaged. Reports from the scene suggest it might have been caused by a mechanical digger looking for Swamp Kauri.
For thousands of years Kauri trees have thrived over northern parts of New Zealand. In colonial times it was milled almost to extinction to build houses and ships. It is rot resistant and its straight grain especially suited it for ship’s spars.
Some Kauri trees fell into swamps and were pickled. This wood, some of it carbon dated up to fifty thousand years old, is greatly valued in China. It makes magnificent dining and board room tables.
To meet the demand cowboy outfits with mechanical diggers, low loaders and contacts with importers in China are digging up massive stumps and exporting them. There have been unconfirmed allegations that a Kauri prospector ignored warning signs and damaged the pipe. There have long been allegations that the Swam Kauri business is poorly regulated.
Knowing how it happened would help to prevent it happening again but no-one is saying. There are suspicions the answer would further embarrass the government this close to the election.
The final leaders’ TV debate was held on Wednesday. The performances by Prime Minister Bill English and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern were competent but unlikely to change anyone’s mind. It was preceded by a shock TV1-Colmar Brunton poll showing the Government well ahead. This poll has registered massive swings during this election.
The polling world is being reorganised in New Zealand to cope with fewer phone land-lines and demographic changes. This may be a reason for the wildly swinging polls but no-one seems quite sure. Other reasons could be the late arrival and strong impression made by the new Labour leader Jacinda Adern and some intense debate along with allegations against National of lies and fake news over Labour’s taxation policies.
Thursday night’s final Newshub-Reid Research poll showed a much tighter race. Neither the right wing group of National with Maori and ACT nor the left wing group of Labour with the Greens would have enough seats in Parliament to govern. However either group could form a government with support from the New Zealand First party. A poll of polls on Friday morning told much the same story.
No-one is saying these polls are reliable, but if they are even close, the populist Winston Peters, founder and leader of NZ First, would again be the King or Queen maker. Not for the first time under New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system, the winner would be in the hands of this one man. All are agreed this election is a particularly volatile.
Max Hayton is a retired New Zealand journalist with parliamentary and international experience.