It’s amazing what you get used to.
I’ve spent most of this week in Perth, Western Australia. While Auckland flooded, it’s been warm and sunny. Unfortunately, I’ve been in a conference room.
But I did get out and drive around a bit. And I’m pleasantly surprised. The streets are clean. Very clean. There are no roadworks. No orange cones. No people in orange clothes. No dust. No mess.
Traffic moves smoothly along wide spacious roads. There are no patches on the roads either. Just acres of unblemished black tarmac in every direction.
Like most of us, I’ve only left the country a couple of times in the last three years. I’d started to forget what other places were like. And Covid’s restrictions have robbed me of the opportunity to travel and compare our lucky little country with the rest.
By comparison, we have the congestion, the dust, the mess, the cones. Constellation Drive feels like it’s been under construction for 10 years. The Southern Motorway too.
It’s amazing what you get used to. In fact, the more exposed we are to poor performance, the more we grow to accept it. A brief trip overseas can reset our expectations.
If you believe the economists, the world is about to go into a global recession. We won’t escape. Usually, when the world sneezes, we get pneumonia. This time around we’re going in with too much debt, a historically high current account deficit that is worse than any other developed country’s, and the international ratings agencies watching us closely. It’s common knowledge we’re spending a billion dollars a week more than we were six years ago and we’re borrowing a billion a week to pay for it. And we haven’t cleaned up after the flood yet.
In the next six months we will see a new Budget and an election, coinciding with the arrival of a pretty tough recession. For those who are in control, there are some tough decisions to be made. To me, the biggest question is this. Do we want to continue down our current track? Or do we want something better?
We were once the little country that could. We beat the odds. Shouted above the noise. But, we seem to have slipped into a spiral of lowering expectations, accepting whatever we get.
I was at a conference last week when the topic of Think Big came up. Those of us born after 1980 will have little idea of what I am talking about. But Think Big was the nickname given to a series of projects initiated by the Government in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Think Big comprised of large infrastructure and industrial projects designed to drive us out of the 1970s recession, decrease the nation’s reliance on imported fuel, the cost of which was growing rapidly at the time, and to provide employment. Projects such as the Clyde Dam, the urea plant at Kapun= and the Methanol plant at Motunui in Taranaki. Think Big also saw the expansion of Marsden Point Oil Refinery, the Glenbrook steel mill and the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point in Southland.
Think Big was the brainchild of then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. Muldoon was a politician who polarised people. He was loved by some who called themselves “Rob’s Mob” and hated by many for his dictatorial style. He could cut down a political opponent or a journalist with a single sentence. For a time he was well regarded internationally, to the point that he was chairman of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Joint Annual Meeting in 1979.
However, he lost the 1984 election and was eventually roundly criticised. In a period long before social media, he became a subject of ridicule after several failed policies and a couple of poorly managed television appearances. Like the man himself, his legacy is conflicted.
Those projects were huge for a small country at that time. They were incredibly risky and ridiculously expensive. The cost was enough to put our entire economy at risk. But somehow we got through all that, and we remain beneficiaries of those assets today. In fact, with the exception of Marsden Point which was recently, inexplicably, closed down, you would argue that we would be in all sorts of bother without some of those assets.
We don’t see governments launching big projects any more. What John Key called “the vision thing” is a thing of the past. There is none. I’d like to think that the little country that could, can do it again. But we need a government that is prepared to be brave. To signal a plan for the country that the people can get behind and support.
And not just a plan for more committees, reviews, or handouts. We don’t need more consulting reports and we don’t need to be told that they are “looking into it”.
This coming week will see the delivery of the Government’s latest Budget. An election year Budget. A Budget to be delivered just as the world enters a recession.
Election year means there will be handouts. Recession means we need to be cautious.
We can’t afford another Think Big strategy – and besides, we lack the vision for such aspiration.
The current Government has listed their achievements to date on their website. They state their pride in progress on child poverty, housing and climate change. They list the winter energy payment, free school lunches and the introduction of the Matariki public holiday. They’ve banned plastic bags and increased the minimum wage.
And that’s all well and good. But it’s hardly a game-changer. It’s hardly brave leadership. And right now we need a bit of that. We need some activity that is going to move the dial for all New Zealanders.
You see, six years later, we’ve borrowed a heap of money, but there are no new roads, and none of the promised rail networks or bridges. The hospitals haven’t been fixed and neither have the schools. There have been plans, mostly shelved after millions of dollars spent.
And yet there is plenty to do. There is no doubt that our infrastructure is in trouble. Roads. Hospitals. Water management.
After three floods in five months in our biggest city, instead of spending time and money arguing about who owns the water, perhaps we could put some effort into working out how to manage it. Instead of sending millions to other countries to help them cope with the effects of climate change, we could invest those millions on our own climate change response.
And how about we let the rest of the world, those who do most of the polluting, do the heavy lifting on climate change? When we see their commitment and progress, we can jump on board as a fast follower. In the meantime, we have other priorities.
We read this week of a mental health patient at Auckland Hospital who waited 94 hours for treatment. It would be great if the Government could finally acknowledge that the health system is in crisis and then deliver a long-term plan to do something about it. With four Health Ministers in six years I suspect that “long-term” is an impossible planning horizon. But while they are reorganising the deckchairs on the good ship Te Whatu Ora, we need action at the coalface. That’s the little-discussed area within the health system where the doctors, the nurses and the patients are.
Meanwhile, the Government continues to try to convince us that our transport future lies with trains. We’ve just seen massive failures in cities that have some reliance on rail for passenger travel. As a result people in Wellington and Auckland have been unable to get to work.
You can shout about the effectiveness of passenger trains in New York, London or Japan all you like, but they have something we don’t have. Population. Heaps of it. We don’t have that and it’s time to abandon the experiment in favour of stuff that is cost-effective and will actually enable people to move around. Without mess. Without cones. And without delay.
One of the most important factors in recovering the country is that people need to be able to get to work. Work also feeds into aspiration, a basic need of the people. For my money that means fixing the roads, extending the motorways, installing cheap and regular bus services, and putting money into using our extensive waterways to transport people.
Yes, it’s time to abandon the costly experiments. The social engineering and the centralisation strategies. The light rail that we can’t afford. The wonky education syllabus and the gobbledegook health authority. It’s time to stop wasting money. We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the abandoned and the unlikely. A cycle bridge, light rail, a media merger and the now abandoned Income Insurance Scheme.
Instead, we need to get back to the basics of running the country properly before it’s too late. There is no evidence the experiments will result in better outcomes. There is plenty of evidence that getting back to basics will. So we need to get on with the stuff that can make a difference. We need cost-effective, rapid-turnaround solutions. We need to give permission and budget to the people at the coalface, those who can fix our problems. Real people with real skills. Doctors, nurses, teachers, drainage experts and roadworkers.
I’d love to see a Government plan with a statement that says the following.
We will work quickly to reduce our costs and that will allow us to get our debt down. We must put every effort into our essential services and facilities and put everything else aside for the next couple of years until we get back on our feet. We need to get our existing transport infrastructure repaired before we can pursue any new initiatives. Thereafter we will complete, over time, a world-class roading network. We need to eliminate red tape and encourage our farmers, tourism operators and other exporters with a renewed focus on productivity, so we can get all New Zealanders working towards our recovery.
Such an outlook would help. And unlike Think Big, it doesn’t need to cost anything.
I met Sir Robert Muldoon once. It was at Eden Park, a couple of years before he died. He was seated across the aisle from me. I helped him on the steep stairs for which he was grateful, and he sat down, with a blanket across his legs protecting him from the wind, to watch the Auckland NPC team. There was no secret service. No friends. Just a little old man, bracing against the wind, who appeared rather lonely.
Let’s hope that the country he spent his reputation on doesn’t end up the same way.
This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 13th April 2023.