SH1 through Mangamuka gorge has been closed since it was damaged by slips in August. Photo / file
Two of Northland’s elected MPs have come under scrutiny over the continual closure of SH1 in the Far North, with residents and business owners insisting they haven’t done enough and have been largely “invisible”.
obtained by the Northern Advocate under the Official Information Act appears to show that, apart from attending a site visit prompted by then-Far North deputy mayor Ann Court, no formal meeting was held and no correspondence was sent from either Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis and Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime to the relevant ministers or Waka Kotahi about the vital transport link.
But Davis and Prime have defended their work advocating for the reopening of SH1 through Mangamuka Gorge. The MPs say they have had numerous in-person conversations about the issue with Transport Minister Michael Wood and Associate Transport Minister Kieran McAnulty while in Wellington, and have also talked to them by phone.
Davis said it was “misleading to say I’ve done nothing”.
“In any given week I would have two or three meetings where Michael Wood is present, and I use those opportunities to catch up and brief him on what’s happening on the ground.
“I can walk into an office, during caucus, cabinet and other meetings, and we can have those conversations more efficiently than writing a letter. I can meet in person, which is a much more effective way of getting across information.
“People need to be assured, Willow-Jean and I have conversations all the time with the appropriate ministers.”
Despite Davis and Prime’s assertions there were many verbal discussions, the documents show neither MP officially raised the issue with ministers at all over the three weeks from the storm of August 17 and 18 to September 8 when Davis posted on Facebook that:
“Immediately after the severe event occurred, impacting SH1, myself and Willow-Jean Prime have communicated with the relevant ministers informing and updating them on the issues and needs of the community and our roads.”
Wood said he received no communication with the MPs on the subject over an even longer period, according to official information documents.
“I have not had any meetings with either MP Prime or Hon Davis, in their roles as electorate MPs, since March 2022 till October 20,” Wood said.
Wood received two emails from Davis, neither of which was related to the Mangamuka Gorge.
There were four emails between August 23 and October 3, all from Waka Kotahi updating Prime and Davis on the issue and providing them with messaging for their social media accounts.
There was one meeting with Emergency Management and Associate Transport Minister Kieran McAnulty and Waka Kotahi; a site visit on September 8 organised by Court who wrote to ministers and MPs the week before inviting them to witness the full extent of the damage and asking “where the bloody hell are you?”.
Dr Greg Treadwell, a senior lecturer in journalism at Auckland University of Technology and OIA expert, said he believed “important verbal conversations should be recorded” in the Act.
“The OIA is not just about documents, it’s about information.
“Just because there’s no written record of it, if you ask for information, even if it’s verbal, he should have been able to provide that under the OIA.”
In Treadwell’s view: “If Michael Wood and Kelvin Davis have a conversation, whether in the queue for a coffee or a formal meeting, when you ask for information, that conversation should be part of it.”
Prime said: “just because we haven’t written letters doesn’t mean we haven’t communicated with the ministers”.
“People don’t understand you write letters when you’re in opposition. We’re in Government, we have access to ministers by phone or face-to-face. We are communicating with them all time on issues important to the region.
“We are simply able to speak to our colleagues when we are in Wellington or pick up the phone and call them. To say we haven’t been communicating with our ministers is wrong.”
Frustration is mounting from the Far North District Council and the 20,000 people who live north of the Mangamuka gorge which was closed in mid-August after severe weather caused over a dozen slips.
Nearly four months later there is still no timeline from Waka Kotahi to fix the main route between Whangārei and Kaitaia, meaning motorists have to detour along SH10, adding at least 30 minutes to their journeys.
Although Waka Kotahi has sourced $14 million for emergency works, this won’t be finished until March next year, and the road will remain closed.
The government transport agency plans to apply for funding early next year to enable SH1 to be remediated to allow traffic to use it as normal, but can’t confirm a timeframe for this work.
“We expect to have more certainty and more information to share about possible options…by mid-2023,” a spokesman said.
Court said she “hasn’t heard anything from either Willow-Jean or Kelvin on the subject at all”.
“I’m not aware of them doing anything. They might be working hard behind the scenes, but if they are it’s completely invisible to me. They need to start talking to their electorate about what they are doing.”
Court said she contacted McAnulty’s office three times asking him to visit the site but was told he was too busy.
“The third time I contacted his office, they said the minister is busy and has a number of priorities and you’re not one of them.
“I have not seen, and I apologise if I’m wrong, a single bit of evidence from either of them [Prime or Davis] to say what’s going on.”
Te Hiku councillor Felicity Foy said Northland’s MPs “should be fighting hard to ensure Treasury provide the funding to get things done”.
“Waka Kotahi has no money; they have made it really clear the Government has not made any promises to provide the funding to provide a proper fix for the Mangamukas.
“Nothing will ever happen unless our current Government makes that financial commitment. They should be fighting for the region here in Northland. They could push for that funding because we can’t do anything without it.”
Davis, who lives north of the gorge, said “applying for funding is not my role.”
“As an MP you do what you can in Wellington to engage with the ministers. If people are expecting Kelvin to make funding announcements, it’s not possible, it’s not how it works. People have to realise with the Mangamuka Gorge, there is no quick fix, there is no magic solution. It’s all going to take time.”
Kaitaia Business Association chairwoman Andrea Panther said it took 13 months to fix quake-damaged SH1 north of Kaikoura back in 2016.
The $2 billion bill for that stretch of highway was picked up by the Crown and approved in four weeks.
“In general, I don’t think our central Government is doing enough about it,” Panther said.
“They jump for something in the south within weeks, and we’re months down the track, and nothing. You can read between the lines but basically, they don’t want to spend the money.”
Davis said Kaikoura and Nelson were “different” and couldn’t be compared to the roading situation in the Far North.
He said he can’t push for Government funding when Waka Kotahi “don’t know how much it will cost”.
“I can’t go and demand money when it might not be the right amount. It’s still too early, engineers need to do their job. There were at least 10 major slips, the hill is still moving, making it challenging to understand the stability of the land. There is no firm idea of what can be done.”
Prime reiterated Davis’s stance.
“I understand people are frustrated. What has happened in the Mangamukas is not the same as Nelson and Kaikoura, at the time those areas were in a state of emergency. That’s why there was a quicker response.
“The maunga is still moving. It’s a huge engineering exercise. When people can appreciate that they may have a bit more understanding as to why we’re taking the time to do it properly.”