By Benjamin Haslem
For any student of both politics and public relations, the brouhaha enveloping New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is captivating.
For those readers here in Australia who may have missed the story, Gov Christie has been caught up in a crisis centering on the closure of several lanes on the double-decker George Washington Bridge, which connects the famous New Jersey Turnpike with uptown Manhattan in New York City.
The September 9 closure caused gridlock on the first day of the school year. Doesn't sound like much, until you discover the clandestine politics behind the closure and the way the entire issue has been handled by the Governor and his office.
You may recall Gov Christie sprung to international prominence in the aftermath of the Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of his state. His performance made him a favourite for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination.
It has now emerged the closure of the bridge lanes was orchestrated by the Governor's deputy chief of staff, as political payback against Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Gov Christie in his re-election bid. The incumbent won the November poll in a landslide, bucking tradition in what is historically a safe Democratic Party State
Later that month, the State Assembly's Transportation Committee, chaired by Democrat John Wisniewski, heard evidence from Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni who said the lane closures were part of a traffic study ordered by the Authority's Interstate Capital Projects Director David Wildstein, a high-school friend of the Governor's.
Gov Christie was first asked about the lane closures on 2 December, denying any involvement. He made this sarcastic remark: "I worked the [traffic] cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones".
Four days later Wildstein resigned, saying the whole affair was a distraction and he was "moving on".
On 9 December, Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye told the Transportation Committee that he was unaware of any traffic safety study being conducted on the bridge.
The Inspector General of the Port Authority then launched an investigation.
On 13 December the Governor announced Baroni had resigned and that his staffer, Deborah Gramiccioni, would fill the vacancy. He again claimed he had nothing to do with the lane closures.
Six days later, Wisniewski announced he had received documents subpoenaed from five Port Authority officials. Gov Christie again dismisses questions about the closure.
On Wednesday this week the New Jersey newspaper, The Bergen Record, obtained a 13 August email from Gov Christie's deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly's personal email account to Wildstein.
Kelly: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee".
Wildstein: "Got it".
The Governor held a 107-minute news conference on Thursday at which he accepted full responsibility for Kelly's actions. He also fired her.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover," he said.
"This was handled in a callous and indifferent way and it's not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years and not the way it will conduct itself over the next four."
It's too early to say how this will affect Gov Christie's presidential aspirations. His ability to connect with traditional blue-collar Democrat voters was seen as a perfect foil for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
He has done the right thing in the past 48 hours. He has accepted responsibility and apologised. He has made a commitment to ensure nothing like 'bridgegate' happens again on his watch. He has punished the staffer responsible.
He even visited Fort Lee and apologised to people affected directly and to the mayor.
But this has a way to run. His political opponents will leave no stone unturned in an attempt to connect Gov Christie to the original decision by Kelly to punish Mayor Sokolich. A federal inquiry has been launched.
The fact Kelly felt authorised to behave in such a way calls into question Gov Christie's management and leadership skills. It also raised questions about the culture in his office and his influence on it.
But let's leave the last word to New Jersey native, Jon Stewart.
By Julie Sibraa
It never ceases to amaze me how old problems, ideas and stories get dusted off, polished up and sold as new around this time of the year. Today we've discovered that superannuation funds, as the custodian of Australian workers’ retirement funds, would be the ideal owners of former public assets like ports, electricity and water utilities.
The reasoning is that if governments can divest themselves of assets they do not need to own or operate they can use the sale proceeds to fund new investment to plug the gaping infrastructure shortfall and meet the needs of our growing population. And if those same assets are owned by Australian superannuation funds then effectively they would be still be owned by the Australian public.
For superannuation funds, ports and other utilities including airports, which exhibit monopoly-like characteristics, represent good investments on the basis they provide earnings stability and long term maturity, that is, a reliable steady revenue stream likely to increase over time.
So it’s a great idea! It’s a wonder no one has thought of it before.
Well they have. And some people have been advocating it for a long time.
I seem to recall back in 2010 when I worked for the peak infrastructure group, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia (IPA) it was also discovered that there was this massive, lazy pool of superannuation savings lying around that could be used to buy well established infrastructure assets and fund new infrastructure. There was the Cooper superannuation enquiry which amongst many other issues looked at this and reported favourably. IPA, amongst many others at the time, produced a thoughtful research policy paper on the issue, exploring not just the upside of such investment but the barriers as well, with some suggestions for government intended to assist overcome these obstacles.
But aside from the NSW Government’s successful 99-year lease of Ports Botany and Kembla to superannuation company Industry Funds Management last year, it still doesn’t seem to happen.
According to a Deloitte report released last September (Dynamics of the Australian Superannuation System: The next 20 years: 2011-2033) there are approximately $1.6 trillion in total assets currently in the Australian superannuation system, with the pool projected to grow to $4 trillion in the next decade and to $7.6 trillion by 2033.
So why doesn’t it happen?
It all comes down to the ability and courage of our political leaders to properly explain to Australians why this is a good and necessary thing to do. With the costs of health, education and social security – surely the very bedrocks of government responsibility – rising steeply and inexorably year by year, eating up more and more of every government’s revenue stream, there is a need for governments to divest themselves of things they don’t need to own or operate.
When political leaders find it within themselves to honestly and factually explain the need for measures like the sale of public assets, they may find Australian people willing to listen and provide permission.
And that is definitely not a new idea.
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