Gordon Campbell on the job losses at KiwiRail

So KiwiRail is about to cut up to 220 jobs by October, and SOE Minister Tony Ryall has refused to front up to explain what is going on here. After declining an interview request from RNZ this morning, Ryall’s office issued a limp one line statement, which reads in full: “I have been informed that KiwiRail is consulting staff over possible staff reductions, as one of a number of measures. This is a decision for KiwiRail.”

Well no it isn’t, actually. It is a decision with implications not only for the KiwiRail staff who are being sent down the road – and surely, they deserve an explanation from the top as to why they are being sacrificed after helping to bring the company back from the brink of disaster – but is also a decision that’s relevant to every voter in the country. After all, taxpayers are funding the massive $750 million turnaround programme at KiwiRail launched in 2010, and intended to repair the damage done to the organization by the privatisation process of the 1990s. Moreover, $250 million of those turnaround funds are being paid this year out of the so called Innovation Fund, which is the receptacle for the money from the government’s highly unpopular selldown of its stake in Mighty River Power and other state assets. In fact, Budget 2012 confirmed that KiwiRail is to be the first and the biggest recipient of the initial funds from the state asset selldown.

Giving with one hand, taking with another. This is what makes Ryall’s disappearing act so outrageous. In any developed country, could a Minister really claim that this level of loss of highly trained staff and expertise was of no concern of his – when the job losses we’re talking about are (a) being forced on KiwiRail by an austerity programme originating from government while at the same time (b) the government is funding with its other hand a massive turnaround programme that’s being funded in part by a controversial selldown of state assets in a situation where (c) perhaps the staff being dumped may well be essential to the long term viability of the organisation? As things stand, we’re selling down the assets to fund a turnaround at an organization where we’re also dumping many of the key staff – and then saying it’s not our problem. Sheesh.

At the very least, you’d think Ryall would feel duty bound to be out there explaining how these jobs cuts fit into the long term health and wellbeing of what is a key element in our national transport infrastructure. You’d think Ryall would be explaining how these jobs losses will affect the KiwiRail turnaround, and would have at hand some credible reassurances that the loss of this expertise will not end up wasting a big slice of the proceeds from the asset sales programme. But no…Ryall has simply run for cover. Pretty incredible. This is what we pay the guy over $200,000 a year, plus perks to deliver?