We need a sturdy defence against these perils of growth

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    In the days when everyone knew what the eight-pointed Maltese Cross of the hospitaler Knights of St John’s looked like, there was a tired old riddle that asked “how do you make a Maltese cross?” 

    These days, there is one surefire answer and it involves no physical and even less human contact. “You stand a tourist up in front of him.” The English (or any other ancient or modern language) the Maltese resident in the street may have learned from birth will be waved away with a clipped “no speak…” and communication will be over.

    One sympathises. 

    Malta is a scrap of rock about the size of Waiheke with 400,000 people of its own and, on any given day, up to 50,000 tourists on its hands. Cruise ships, often three a day and with 5000 passengers apiece, emerge from the pre-dawn haze, dwarfing the 16th century forts in Valletta’s magnificent Grand Harbour that have defended Christendom from the Ottoman Empire before now.

    There is no defence.  By time the behemoths have rotated their monstrous bulk in the middle of the harbour and fed posh breakfasts to their multitudes, it’s all on. Cafés in prime spots above the waterfront are a Babel of languages, inappropriate clothing and cultural mores from the most remote corners of Europe. 

    It’s so extreme that a table of Americans can sound familiar and even intelligent beside the ugly vowels of regional Britishers and their breathtakingly cringe-worthy critiques of the hapless destination du jour. Even if it’s a Unesco world heritage site and breathtakingly beautiful.

    Growth and development are the great gods of GDP but they seldom improve citizens’ lives or the country’s tax revenues, and never for long. We are facing it ourselves, along with the Maltese, the impoverished Italians of the Mediterranean coastal towns and citizens of the great capitals and tourist hotspots like Amsterdam and Venice.

    Waiheke’s Morra Hall was crammed three-deep round the walls and another 150 arrived outside for last Sunday’s public meeting to demand proper oversight of ferry company Fullers 360 and Auckland Transport. It can have left the ferry company under no doubts about the increasing unworkability and downright unfairness of jamming cruise ship and tourist market ambitions into our working world. 

    Jealously guarded for decades, Fullers’ (and Sealink’s) exemption from regulation and subsidy – and therefore price control – is unlikely to survive the uprising, with analyst and early speaker Louise Swann challenging the legal validity of Auckland Transport’s extreme interpretation of “exemptions” from local government oversight set in place in 2011 by former finance minister Stephen Joyce.

    The ferry companies have legal obligations under the Land Transport Management Act and being exempt does not mean they are untouchable, she said, pointing out that Auckland Transport must register and record details of the exempt service and has the right to decline any request to vary these services to enable delivery of the regional public transport plan.

    Unfortunately, Auckland Transport’s top brass had been stricken with sudden illness, and their sacrificial delegate lectured the crowd on what it could not expect, apparently unaware of the $3 million that Waiheke ferry and freight users contribute each year to AT as a long-standing – and vexed – wharf tax.

    Ms Swann set the tone of a sharp-edged afternoon that canvassed the sheer impossibility of life on Waiheke when the ferries are unreliable, unpleasantly full, the company uncommunicative and likely to leave you queuing on the wharf through successive sailings without a single word of explanation or redress. 

    How many times can you arrive late for work and still have a job?  How do you get to long-awaited medical appointments, or indeed, fly an aeroplane out of Mangere, if ferry sailings evaporate? Where is the child you needed to meet in town if you cannot be there on time?  

    Why is there no provision beyond the iniquitous queues for managing the very different needs of tourists, trippers, residents and commuters? 

    The customer experience of shambolic sailings with cold, wet, frustrated passengers jammed together on every seat with the aircon turned to low is not one to forget or forgive in a hurry. 

    Fullers has taken a on whole raft of other, subsidised, fully regulated and cheaper ferry services round the harbour in recent times and a yearning for more day trippers stretched them and further distorted the successful Waiheke model that had served us pretty well. That’s business.

    But lest we forget, as we pick apart and analyse possible solutions, Auckland Transport’s culture has authored much of the problem. We’ve known for yonks that the organisation plays favourites and is not on our side. Ignorance is a strategy and there is no evidence the transport Council-controlled organisation is about to change. 

    We should choose our preferences with caution and that in mind. • Liz Waters

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