The government’s transport agency is standing by its decision to run Facebook ads that feature council politicians who are candidates in local elections.

The ads, which have run as recently as Sept 2, feature Labour and Green party city councillors and are branded with both Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) and council logos.

An NZTA spokesperson told BusinessDesk the agency stood by the ads as they were filmed prior to the election period and the politicians were acting in their capacity as local representatives, rather than as election candidates.

However the "social media posts" are not currently being promoted and will be deleted during the local election period.

The local election period began on July 8 and voting begins on Sept 16.

NZTA did not directly respond to BusinessDesk’s question on how the politicians were selected, saying only they chose to support these programmes in their capacity as local representatives.

Political neutrality

The Public Service Commission spoke with NZTA in May about a Taxpayers’ Union complaint that NZTA breached government advertising guidelines which require agencies to behave fairly and impartially.

Earlier this year, a commission investigation found housing agency Kāinga Ora breached political neutrality when it sponsored an article profiling a Labour party candidate shortly before the 2020 general election.

It also follows concerns raised about an ad campaign promoting the government's 'three waters' legislation which was curtailed after intervention by the commission.

The NZTA ads promote projects that were funded as part of the government’s “Streets for people” initiative which aims to accelerate projects that will make streets safer and healthier, and reduce climate emissions.

The ads feature Christchurch councillor Jake McLellan promoting a trial cycleway on Ferry Rd and Wellington councillors, Tamatha Paul and Sarah Free, promoting a similar project on Brooklyn Rd.

The Ferry Rd improvement is located within the Central ward that McLellan represents but a council press release announcing its opening mentions councillor Mike Davidson who is the transport committee chair, rather than McLellan.

McLellan is running on the Labour-aligned People’s Choice ticket and before being elected worked as an organiser for the Labour party during the 2017 general election and 2019 local election campaigns.

He is the son of the Labour MP for Banks Peninsula, Tracey McLellan.

Paul was elected as an independent councillor for the Lambton ward but is running on a Green party ticket, while Free was elected as a Green party councillor for the Eastern ward, but is standing as an independent in 2022. 

The Brooklyn cycleway does begin within the Lambton ward that Paul represents but runs mainly through the Southern ward.

A 2021 council press release announcing consultation on the cycleway mentions only Free as cycling portfolio lead and another Lambton councillor, Iona Pannett, as committee chair.

NZTA also ran an ad in April featuring Hutt city mayor Campbell Barry advocating the introduction of lower speed limits – he is a Labour party candidate.

‘Responsibility of the board’

In April, the Taxpayers' Union complained to the Public Service Commission about NZTA’s “Road to Zero” advertising campaign which it said breached the government’s guidelines, particularly as they were not aimed at changing road users' behaviour but at building “social licence” for government policy.

The complaint also raised concerns about mayor Barry and Cr McLellan appearing in NZTA’s ads. 

Responding to written questions from the National party, public service minister Chris Hipkins said NZTA chair Brian Roche discussed the complaint with the commission in May and it was arranged for its chief executive, Nicole Rosie, to meet with the commission the following week.

“The commission provided the chief executive of Waka Kotahi with advice on interpretation of the guidelines for government advertising and a copy of the concerns that had been raised with the Commission by the Taxpayers Union. 

“The application of the guidelines and Waka Kotahi’s response remained the responsibility of the board.”

An NZTA spokesperson told BusinessDesk the agency did not agree with the substance of the Taxpayers’ Union’s complaint and no changes have been made to their advertising since speaking with the commission.

They pointed out the ads included councillor Paul (who was an independent at the time) so they hadn't used only Labour politicians.

As for the union’s concerns about Road to Zero, the spokesperson said the campaign was intended to educate the public about the “evidence-based factors” that will achieve a reduction in deaths and serious injuries. 

“The advertising is designed to make people understand that humans make mistakes and that mistakes should not cost lives.”

“In addition, the Advertising Standards Authority has found that the Road to Zero public information campaign advertisements are justified on education grounds.”

Completely unacceptable

Transport minister Michael Wood told BusinessDesk he expected NZTA to comply with the government advertising guidelines.

"I understand the agency is removing the posts during the local election period.”

National party spokesperson Simeon Brown said it was completely unacceptable for NZTA to be using taxpayers' funds to run ads featuring local body candidates during a local body election campaign.

He said the government advertising rules are clear cut and NZTA had clearly overstepped the line. “NZTA must pull these adverts and ensure that they are following all government advertising rules.”

Christchurch city council said they would not be commenting and referred enquiries to NZTA. 

When asked if their electoral officer had any concerns, the spokesperson said their electoral officer had not seen the ads.

Wellington city council was approached for comment.