Gordon Campbell on the ferry follies of Nicola Willis

willthumbCook Strait can be one of the roughest stretches of water in the world. Thanks to Finance Minister Nicola Willis, New Zealand is now going to have to rely for the next decade or more on a couple of car ferries leased or purchased on the second hand ferry market and adapted as best we can to serve the crucial freight and tourism link between the islands.

In the wake of the Willis decision, the political to and fro has consisted almost entirely of virtue signalling about the cost blowout, rather than on how we now aim to future proof a vital service. Reportedly, Willis baulked at a blowout in extra costs of roughly $1.7 billion. This is significantly less than the Ferrari tax cut that Willis is planning to give to landlords. There’s a pattern here. In 2010, a previous National government saw fit to spend $1.6 billion to bail out investors in South Canterbury Finance.

The ferries project’s total cost – circa $3 billion – is the same amount that we have spent without a second thought on buying and kitting out four surveillance aircraft for the Defence Force. Ultimately, it is a matter of priorities.When it suits the government of the day, it spends the money. Arguably, future proofing the Cook Strait ferry service should be a very, very high priority. Instead, it is being treated as a political football.

Incredibly, Willis has cancelled the project without conducting a side by side comparative cost evaluation of the alternative. By the time we (a) trawl the second hand ferry market for something adaptable for purpose (b) pay the cost of the refit (c) pay for the cost of rejigging the rail link that the second-hand ferry will not be able to meet (d) lose the millions already spent on the Korean ferries and (e) also pay out further millions in costs for breaking our contracts with the Korean shipyards…. There won’t be much net gain in it, if any.

And that’s even before – at a time when we are supposedly trying to reduce the emissions being generated by the transport-generated emissions – we factor in the cost of the greater emissions that the older, second hand ferries will inevitably generate. It is also before we consider – because of the inability of a second hand ferry to service the rail link – the added environmental costs of the extra trucks on the road that we are now going to face, for the next decade or more.

In sum, Willis has put New Zealand on course to locking in an inferior, less reliable ferry service. The bulk of the blowout, BTW, has not been on the building costs of the allegedly “Ferrari” ferries, but on the cost of the more expansive onshore facilities needed to handle them. Again, if we regard this as a necessary investment to provide a reliable service to meet our future freight and tourism needs, that investment seems like money well spent. Certainly, it would have been more useful than the circa $3 billion we have lavished on those four Air Force planes.

In the end, we stand to be saving peanuts in order to obtain a nominally cheaper, less capable and less reliable ferry service.

Footnote: Needless to say, National did not tell voters it was planning to tear up the contracts for the ferry replacements, any more than it told voters it was going to scrap the anti-smoking legislation. It has no mandate for either decision. Ultimately, the ferries decision looks like it has been taken to rescue National from the political embarrassment of conceding that yes, its tax cuts really were unaffordable all along, just as its critics had argued.

Plus ça climate change

When does a “transition away” from fossil fuels not amount to a “phase out” of fossil fuels? Answer: When we’re talking about the final text of the COP28 climate change conference. The big polluters – the US, China, India and the petro-states, one of whom hosted COP28 – will be happy with the final wording.

The US oil and gas industry will be unaffected, There is a yawning between New Zealand’s pantomime of climate change concern at COP28 and its domestic actions to throw open the door to oil and gas exploration, rubbish the science around climate change, and conduct mining on DOC land.

As for the developing nations suffering the worst of the climate change consequences, what compensation did COP28 deliver to help them “transition away” from coal, oil and gas and build a renewables sector capable of meeting their needs?

Hardly anything. The US paid $3 billion into a fund for that purpose, an insulting amount given the scale of the problem, and given America’s historical role in creating the climate change crisis. Chevron racked up more than double that amount ( $6.53 billion) in net income during the September 2023 quarter alone.

As for the “transition away” – there was no commitment to a timeline made at COP28, or agreement on obligatory steps signifying the transition. As several countries critical of COP28’s final text angrily pointed out, the wording of the final text contains a “litany of loopholes.” So… Another opportunity to treat climate change with the urgency it requires has come and gone, another opportunity has been largely wasted.

Footnote: In case you missed this speech by Resources Minister Shane Jones’ in which he railed against the “ hysteria” around climate change, here it is. The Jones speech was mainly intended to infuriate the liberals, but it is still sobering to realise that this buffoon is now the guardian of New Zealand’s natural resources.

Pop culture

By and large, politicians show a striking lack of interest in popular culture. Sport, yes. Culture (pop or otherwise,) not so much. Sure, it isn’t crucial to the running of the country that an MP knows the name of a single Taylor Swift song…. But hey, pop culture is important to the people they allegedly represent. Seventeen years later, I can still remember the mutual incomprehension on both sides of the table when I tried to talk to a Greens co-leader about the merits of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a pop cultural landmark of the time.

Chances are then, some people may have missed the most recent episode in season five of the Fargo TV series. In it, the libertarian sheriff played by Jon Hamm was expounding on his “no rules, no regs” worldview to the imperious tycoon played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was not impressed.

“You want unlimited freedom, without responsibility. There’s only one person on earth who gets that deal.”

“The President?” Hamm suggested.

“No, a baby. You’re arguing for your right to be treated like a baby.”

Keep that exchange in mind if you happen to get into a “cut the red tape and regulations” argument over Christmas dinner with that wealthy uncle or annoying cousin who voted for the ACT party. Farmers are babies.

Songs of the Sea

Plenty of good songs exist about the sea and boats (“Sloop John B” “The Crystal Ship” “Dream of the Sea” etc) but here’s New Orleans native Frankie Ford with a game rendition of his classic “Sea Cruise.” Kiwirail executives can surely empathise with the line about “Got to boogie woogie/with a knife in my back…”

Messing around in boats is fun, as well as being essential to the world of commerce. Here’s country eccentric Lyle Lovett satirising the impulse to mess around. Who doesn’t want to ride their pony on their boat?

From a couple of months ago, here’s M.J. Lenderman (of the group Wednesday) with a slacker anthem about loss. She’s not only left him, but dang it, “It’s plain to see that you have bought yourself a boat since the last time you and me spoke… How many more subtle misfortunes can I withstand tonight?”