Claire Trevett: Known when to walk away – Labour takes Kenny Rogers advice in cycle bridge u-turn

Singer Kenny Rogers dispensed the most important political advice in all of history: know when to walk away, and know when to run.

The Government is understood to be on the verge of doing just that over its plans for a $785 million cycle bridge over Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour.

It would be quite a u-turn, given the Government’s adamance until now that the bridge would go ahead and its ongoing attempts to sell it as a new glittering jewel for Auckland.

But a well-timed u-turn is sometimes just what is needed. Polls, including Newshub Reid Research’s poll showing even 75 per cent of Labour voters were against it, appear set to result in the handbrake being yanked up.

The bridge was in danger of becoming emblematic of a Government’s skewed spending priorities.

It had become a political liability.

Often Governments stick to their guns on such matters, reasoning once they are actually delivered people will realise they were a great idea all along.

But if this Government is going to spend some of its political capital on anything, it will clearly be something more worthy than a cycle bridge that was still many years away.

U-turns are often seen as a weakness. Sometimes they are, especially if they relate to a promise a political party has made and campaigned on only to turn away from it once in Government. Then a u-turn amounts to a broken promise.

In Labour’s case, it had campaigned on a cycle crossing – but that was the much cheaper (unfeasible) Sky Path, not the separate bridge.

Judging from Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s noises about his desire to now focus more on a harbour tunnel crossing, the Government will now go back to the drawing board.

U-turns can also be an effective political tool: they can be used as a show the Government is “listening”.

In the case of the bridge, the Government can hardly say it has not heard the objections.

The backlash was almost immediate, partly because it coincided with news other roading projects were being cut and because it coincided with floods in the South Island taking out the Ashburton Bridge.

It may have seemed a great idea. But it was an idea at the wrong time.

It was an expensive frivolity at a time of uncertainty and demands on the Government’s coffers. People are increasingly conscious of rising Government debt, and what the money being drawn down in the name of Covid-19 was being spent on.

Labour used to rail against former PM John Key for his “flip-flops”. or u-turns.Key’s u-turns were sometimes poll-driven, and usually firmly pragmatic – at least politically.

There was his decision to keep Working for Families in place, despite opposing it in Opposition. That was political pragmatism: once people are getting money into their pockets, it is politically dangerous to take it away again.

The more serious flip-flop was to lift GST after saying during the 2008 election campaign that he would not do so.

He got away with it by saying the Global Financial Crisis meant National could not afford its tax cuts without raising GST to pay for them. He could either have broken the promise not to lift GST. Or he could have broken a promise to cut taxes. The latter was the cornerstone of National’s platform. It would have been a much bigger broken promise.

He was forgiven by the next election, which perhaps shows if there is a reasonable reason for a u-turn a politician will get away with it.

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