The denigration of Kiwirail continues. The latest review (based on a 2014 assessment) of the options facing the company have enabled Kiwirail to be hung out to dry once again as a liability and burden on the taxpayer.
The company is an ‘economic cot case’, in the words of one media report this morning. In reality, the review’s sole consideration was whether (and how) Kiwirail could be turned into a ‘for profit’ business, as construed on very narrow commercial grounds. No consideration was given or value placed upon the social and environmental benefits of Kiwirail’s freight and passenger operations.
The only options on the table proved to be these: (a) a ‘trimmed’ network, with some un-economic rail lines being closed down entirely (b) the separation of Kiwirail into separate North Island and South Island networks with the interisland ferry service being scrapped (c) a business operating only in the upper North Island and focused mainly on the Tauranga to Auckland corridor and (d) the closing down of Kiwirail’s rail freight business altogether. Ultimately, the government chose to adopt none of the above.
Even on these narrow, ideologically loaded grounds, the 2014 review found that Kiwirail was actually running its daily operations on a profitable basis. What was sending its balance sheets into the red was the $200 million annual cost of repair and replacement of its essential infrastructure: the tracks, bridges, tunnels etc. Again, it’s worth asking why is Kiwirail being singled out here for such rigorous attention?
Elsewhere in the world the value of rail as a conduit for moving passengers and freight is well recognized and is widely subsidized as a public good without very much debate or political dissent. Moreover, public ownership of rail is seen to deliver social and environmental gains that have value in the real world, even if they can’t be allowed a place in Treasury’s economic models.
The tut-tutting pressure on Kiwirail is highly selective. As this column has been pointing out all year, huge amounts are being allocated to Defence without the public (or the media) even blinking, even though – officially – no external security threat is deemed to exist in the South Pacific region. In February, the government spent $440 million for a weapons upgrade on our all-but-obsolete frigates, which would still be sitting ducks in any genuine war-fighting situation, regardless. We don’t ever seem to run a proper cost/benefit analysis on the investment of taxpayer dollars in Defence. We also choose to ignore the lack of a viable cost/benefit rationale when it comes to the massive investments in roading. Yet we regularly kick Kiwirail all around the block when it requires only a fraction of the amounts being freely spent in other areas.
Historically, Kiwirail’s potential contribution of this country’s r&d has never been capitalised upon. The closing of the Hillside workshops in Dunedin for instance, came to mind again this week, after reports that a French company had won the submarine contract for the Australian Navy. Those submarines will be built in Adelaide, using Australian steel and creating Australian jobs while – along the way – contributing to Australia’s research and development reservoir of knowledge, with spinoffs back into the private sector.
That sort of thing can’t seem to happen here. It would involve state planning and a rational investment in a future beyond this year’s short term balance sheet – and that sort of thing is still shunned as a sinful, inherently dangerous activity by the mullahs at Treasury. Grudgingly, the government is doing the right thing by continuing its support for Kiwirail.
Lemons, Lemons and Lemonade.
Can’t add much to the torrents of commentary this past week on the death of Prince and the release of Beyonce’s Lemonade ‘visual album.’ Loved that Onion headline though : “Nation Too Sad to Fuck, Even Though That’s What Prince Would Have Wanted”. This piece on Prince’s admiration for Islam was also interesting.
Footnote: on the same day that Prince died, so did the great Southern guitarist and singer Lonnie Mack, whose 1963 instrumental version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” inspired a whole generation of budding guitarists. Mack’s deep soul ballad “Why” also proved that even pudgy 22 year old white guys got the blues, and could sing them, beautifully. A few years ago, critic Greil Marcus wrote an essay that celebrated Lonnie Mack’s rendition, and the song’s inexorable, escalating sense of despair.
Two days in, I’m still working out my reaction to Beyonce’s Lemonade. Easy enough to admire the visual imagery, and the music is striking. “Formation” sounds even better in this context “Hold Up” (to take just one example) wittily uses its Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Andy Williams samples. Great guest appearance by Kendrick Lamar on “Freedom” too. Yet the extent to which Lemonade lays claim to being a general statement of vulnerability/empowerment seems to sit uneasily alongside the reality show ‘Kanye & Kim’ elements. The Jay- Z cameo is especially odd. Sure, the personal is political, but too much personal specificity (aka gossip) risks undercutting the claims to a more general truth. Among the deluge of analysis that’s been published this week on Lemonade, these comments by Amanda Petrusich also seemed interesting:
Insomuch as it’s possible to distill any one theme from the last couple of decades of pop music, it’s the presentation of—and insistence upon—self-empowerment as an infallible path toward joy. Those sorts of affirmations can induce a wild ecstasy in the moment—I AM THE BEST! NO ONE CAN TOUCH ME! SUCK A DICK, JERKS!—but eventually, one has to worry about whether those same notions are not, in fact, a deeply odious and toxic force in the world. It can’t be great for whole generations to come of age hollering self-aggrandizing anthems that never quite acknowledge the most gratifying and dangerous thing a human being can actually do: courageously make room for another person in her heart.
To which the obvious rejoinder is that… until the oppressed can first find the means to assert themselves, they’re not going to be in any position to re-open themselves to vulnerability further down the track, no matter how therapeutic that might be in theory. (Still, Petrusich is right about righteous anger only taking you so far.) The other fascinating strand in Lemonade is that… as a cry of pain and empowerment against the Jay Z who did her wrong, it seems ironic that Beyonce chose to initially release Lemonade exclusively on the Tidal streaming service, thereby all but ensuring that Jay Z’s investment in Tidal will finally pay off. It is easy to see why the comparisons with the Clintons are being made.
Sure, it may be more courageous not to kick the bum out – as many Beyonce’s admirers are claiming. Equally and arguably, a somewhat careerist form of co-dependence could also be at work here. Her choice, of course. Ultimately, people stay in relationships or go, for their reasons. Here’s Etta James, who also knew a thing or two about heartbreak:
And here is her original hit version of an Etta James song that – to James’ dismay – Beyonce famously chose to sing to Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House.