Airport survey secrecy descends into farce

by Peter Newport - Dec 09, 2019

When Mayor Jim Boult announced a freeze on airport expansion all those months ago there was a general sense of relief - and it also probably secured Mr Boult's local election win. In Wanaka, even after the freeze announcement rival Mayoral candidate Nik Kiddle received almost twice the votes of Jim Boult - 2,795 vs. 1,573.

Mayor Jim Boult announces the freeze on airport expansion in Wanaka on August 8th. His subsequent election win may well have depended on it.

We could easily have ended up with a new Mayor, if Mayor Boult had not made the expansion freeze move on August the 8th.

Of course the expansion freeze is not indefinite and the outcome depends on a much-vaunted community survey looking at the Economic and Social Impact of airport expansion. The Queenstown Airport Corporation has not covered itself in glory so far in the consultation stakes, so inevitably there's now a lot of attention on this "do or die" survey. The results will be used either as a licence for further airport expansion or as a reason for airport expansion (in Queenstown and Wanaka) either stopping or being slowed down.

The stakes could not be any higher.

For the past few weeks Crux has been chipping away at a surprising veil of secrecy that has been shrouding the community survey. We've had limited success but we want to share the process as we think it is both illuminating - and alarming.

First the good news. We have the council's Request for Proposal (RFP). This is the document that details the purpose of the survey. So you don't have to read all 24 pages of the RFP - here's the key takeaways. First the narrative.

"For some in the district, growth is impacting in a positive way (for example economic growth, business opportunity, professional development, improved services, more diverse retail offerings, employment options) and for others it brings challenges (such as increased living costs, traffic congestion, housing affordability and quality of life challenges)."

Secondly, here's what the council's community survey has to deliver.

  • "How much of a role do the airports have on the impact of growth in the district and how would this be affected if the airports were to grow or be constrained;
  • What are the financial impacts should the airports grow or be constrained?
  • What are the tourism considerations locally, regionally and nationally?
  • What are the implications for the local and wider economy? This might include the current
  • contribution the airports make to local, regional and national GDP; local, regional and national employment, business and economic development opportunities; residential and commercial property markets, and different work models such as remote workers;
  • Are there any overseas studies that could bring value to the assessment?

"Consider the impact of airport operations on the communities of Queenstown and Wānaka."

QLDC CEO Mike Theelen - a councillor information request revealed he was in regular contact with the airport corproation's CEO Colin Keel - potentially in breach of the governance separation guidelines designed to distance the CCTO from the council.

"Consider the Social impact of Queenstown and Wānaka Airports to the district’s communities, including consideration of (but not limited to):

  • social licence;
  • The social consequences, with particular regard to wellbeing, quality of life and environmental impacts (including consideration of climate change, reputation and socialconsequences as outlined)

Any other externalities that should be considered."

Some other positive aspects of the RFP include a consideration of different scenarios, previously excluded from the QAC’s own consultation work.

“QAC Proposals (as summarised by the QLDC RFP)

  1. QAC proposed the expansion of air noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport to accommodate a maximum of 5.1M passenger movements (of a forecast 7.1M demand) by 2045. Subsequent to informal feedback on this proposal QAC has indicated this proposal will be revisited.
  2. QAC proposed to develop Wānaka Airport to return scheduled air services from 2025, indicating this would be domestic services within Aotearoa New Zealand.

"Alternative Scenarios (as summarised by the QLDC RFP)

  1. Development of a new greenfield airport (out of district) and the associated closure of Queenstown Airport and no development at Wānaka Airport.
  2. Distribution to alternative existing airports, i.e. Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill, with little or no growth at Queenstown or Wānaka Airports.
  3. No growth at Queenstown Airport and development of commercial flights at Wānaka Airport. “

Are these questions and scenarios subjective or objective? It's an important point because these questions will dictate the outcome of the survey. Are they leading questions? Do the questions direct a pre-determined or limited result?

Well, regardless of whether we the community or our elected councillors think the brief is flawed or not - tough. Crux understands that elected councillors have been briefed on the exercise, but told that this is "not the time" for any input or changes. That might, apparently, come at some stage in the future.

On reading the full RFP it's hard to decide if the work is a community survey or a consultant’s report with "engagement" as one of the deliverables.

The Devil is in the Detail.

The answers that Crux set out to find were simple. How much is the work costing, who is doing it, how is it to be reviewed/managed and will the results will transparent and authentic? A consulting company called MartinJenkins won the bid to carry out the Impact survey for QLDC. More on that company later.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council - will the airport impact project be supervised by elected councillors - or by council managers?

Here are the answers supplied by QLDC on December 3rd. LGOIMA means the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act – under which council can delay an answer for 20 working days or more if they require a time extension. QLDC responsesd are underlined.

  • Cost of the MartinJenkins work for QLDC on airport expansion?
    This will be treated as a LGOIMA. Our LGOIMA officer will be in touch on this soon.
  • Details of the work they will be doing - the official brief from council and the input from elected councillors as well as council managers?
    The scope is currently being defined and we will be publishing a media advisory once more details are available.
  • A timescale for the work? This will be confirmed once the scope is fully agreed and will be communicated as part of the aforementioned advisory.
  • Are QAC involved or are they being kept distant from the project? 
    QAC has no direct role in the project other than as a stakeholder who MartinJenkins will be engaging with to gather information to inform economic and social assessments


Queenstown Airport Corporation CEO Colin Keel - on $550,000 a year to deliver big results to QAC shareholders - but what happens if he can't?

Our approach with the Queenstown Airport Corporation was to ask for email correspondence with QLDC, the Wanaka Chamber of Commerce, Auckland International Airport and Air New Zealand – under the Official Information Act. Originally we asked for 48 months of material – and then refined our request to four months. Here’s the Queenstown Airport Corporation’s initial response to the 48 month request. They have now accepted our four month request.

"QAC has been considering your request.  We provide some views below that we encourage you to consider, and we invite you to withdraw your request.

  • The scope of your request is extremely broad and undefined.  You do not provide any context for your request, or indicate the topic, decisions or matters you are interested in. Accordingly, we believe we will have little difficulty concluding that there is no public interest in disclosing the information you have requested.   
  •  It will take substantial time and effort to collate the information you have requested.  For example, four years of correspondence between a chief executive and multiple organisations will include a substantial volume of information.  This is further emphasised by the fact that the scope of your request covers emails to multiple people within organisations, and not to individuals themselves.
  •  Given the parties covered by your request and the nature of the information likely to be included in the emails, we will need to carefully assess grounds to withhold information.  That means deciding on a response to your request will consume significant time and resource of the board, senior management and third parties that we will need to consult with.  That would be disruptive to QAC and those other parties, and is likely to require an extension of a number of months beyond the statutory timeframe.
  •  We will impose charges for providing information to the full extent allowed by the Act."

Wanaka's Naomi Lindsay - leaving the airport comms team after three years.

So – we’ll wait and see what comes back from QAC. But on the subject of airport Comms/PR/Marketing there have been some interesting changes. Naomi Lindsay, who is also Executive Officer for the Wanaka Chamber of Commerce, announced on social media site LinkedIn that she was leaving the QAC, where she had worked for three years, and was looking for other opportunities.

Jen Andrews, who used to be the Comms/PR boss at the airport, returned from an extended overseas holiday and has quietly ended up back at the airport in a PR/Comms role as a consultant – since September. Crux asked both the current Comms boss Sara Irvine, and Jen Andrews herself, what work she was doing for QAC and what projects she was working on. Both refused to give details.

Allana Coulon - MD of consultants MartinJenkins who are being paid an undlisclosed sum to carry out the Airport Expansion Impact study

So that leaves us with the consultants who won the bid to do the survey/Impact Report – MartinJenkins – that's how they spell their name. They are based in Hamilton and here’s the response from their Managing Director when we asked for a phone interview.

 "Thank you for your email. As a rule we do not generally discuss our work with the media. If you have specific questions about the work of Queenstown Lakes District Council, these should be directed to them through their normal media channels. 

Kind regards,

Allana Coulon | Managing Director


 No joy there either – and that brings us full circle back to the council. 

In summary we don’t know how much the work is costing the ratepayer or how it’s being managed. We do know that elected councillors have been told they “might” have some input later on, but not now.

We do know that QAC has no “direct” role – except as a “stakeholder that the consultants will engage with.” That could mean a lot of things.

Beyond that, Crux can only keep digging and asking the questions.  

Here’s a promising final sentence from the RFP – we can only hope that it comes true. Only full transparency can deliver that result.

“The requirement is that all research, analysis, interviews, discussions, data etc will retain a robust independent integrity.”

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