Shovel-ready – the misleading catchcry of 2020

On Monday this week, New Zealand’s capital city ground to a grid-locked halt for five hours because of a small slip on State Highway 2. This shows us a number of things to be concerned about.

The city predicted to be hit by a big earthquake any day now has no transport resilience; the management of the response to the slip leaves us wondering about the capability in New Zealand to build all this new infrastructure cash is being splashed at; and the needs of a handful of cyclists seemed to take precedence over the many motorists trying to get north of Wellington city on both SH1 and SH2 from 2.50pm, when the slip was first reported, until 8pm, when traffic cleared.

On RNZ the next day, in explanation of the magnitude of the five-hour snarl-up, the safety of cyclists – with their cycle lane on SH2 closed by the slip – was cited by NZTA as one reason for closing one traffic lane to cars and trucks. NZTA conceded that closing one lane on a highway in peak hour traffic causes major issues and is a vulnerability for Wellington. There was no mention of the existing cycleway that runs adjacent to this part of SH2. It is apparently a bit rough and is being upgraded, but surely it could be used in this kind of situation?

Every winter this road has a slip at least once, causing this kind of traffic mayhem. A lot of commuters reported this was the worst wait they’d ever had. While the slip appeared very small, there was apparently a lot of instability in the bank running alongside the highway. It was also difficult for crews to access the site and get the appropriate gear there due to the built-up traffic.

This highlights the dangerous lack of resilience in the roading network and the clear need for the Petone to Grenada highway, which has been put on ice by the Government. This is despite it being listed as a top priority in the Wellington Lifelines report – to safeguard New Zealand’s economy in the event of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake on the Wellington Faultline. Our economy certainly can’t take another hit right now.

On Monday, motorists trying to get to Petone and beyond in the Hutt Valley were advised to take SH1 and then go across SH58. That just caused SH1 to gridlock and added 40km-plus to people’s journey home. Another reason to get the Petone to Grenada highway out of the mothballs, and of course, to get Transmission Gully finished.

The situation with SH2 can only be described as chaos, with no clear strategy or plan of action for something that is a regular occurrence in winter and could cost lives in a major earthquake.

Added to the mess that Transmission Gully has become – with a finish date moving out all the time to now possibly 2023 – it is hard to have confidence in the big picture planning for New Zealand’s transport network, particularly for our major cities. When it comes to Auckland, I only need to say “light rail” and you get the picture.

The situation in Wellington is sadly reflective of many parts of New Zealand’s road network. Operators are constantly telling the Road Transport Forum how much harder it is to get their trucks from A to B, or the damage their gear suffers and the additional cost pressure that puts on them. The state of the road – be it poor maintenance or limited capacity – is usually to blame for these pressures.

With our current track record, there are some big question marks hanging over New Zealand’s ability to recover from the economic hit caused by Covid-19 by building infrastructure. We don’t have the expertise, and with our borders closed indefinitely as we try and eliminate Covid-19, where are we going to get the necessary help from?

Each day another announcement is made about money being spent somewhere on infrastructure. New Zealanders need to mark all these announcements and hold those making them to account to actually deliver; to have the capability to plan, design and manage these projects; and to have the people on the end of all those shovels to do the work.

Shovel-ready may well be the most misleading catchcry of 2020.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Let’s revert to our Kiwi “can-do” reputation

What can we do to salvage the New Zealand economy from the scythe of Covid-19?

At the moment, all we hear from Government is what we can’t do. We are told this very firmly, every day, at 1pm. If we try and do anything we can’t do, we are told there will be consequences – our curtain twitching neighbours will dob us in and the Police, or some other relevant enforcer, will come and stop us from doing anything.

This is disappointing. New Zealand is supposed to be a nation of creative thinkers, innovators, solutions-focused inventors and engineers, and people who will just get on and do it. We were that “can do” nation at the bottom of the world that punched above our weight. Now we are being overwhelmed with a culture of fear and a barrage of “can’t”. Apparently, the world outside our home is not safe, so we should just not do anything at all. Above all, we should not question what is going on.

We are staring down the barrel of our worst unemployment rate in many generations. The economy is on its knees. Businesses that were the fabric of our society – small and locally owned – are bleeding and dying. A whole generation are having their education interrupted to the point that for some, there will be no recovery. If ever there was a time to dig deep and find that “number 8 wire can fix it” mentality, that time is now.

That means the Government moving the country to a level where businesses can effectively operate and businesses stepping out from the shadow of Government. The Government should focus on those who most need help – the young, unemployed, and unwell (a giant task ahead) – as well as boosting the economy with the things within their control at all times, not just Covid-19 times, such as big-ticket infrastructure.

Government should let businesses and the markets do what they do best, that is, respond to supply and demand, export and import, move things to where they need to be and get on with rebuilding the economy. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Government intervention comes at a price – over-regulation and control ruin motivation, innovation and creativity.

Unfortunately, we are seeing the ugly head of anti-globalism rising in New Zealand and some parts of Government wanting to control businesses, markets and prices – to push for a domestic market at the expense of where the country makes its money, exports. This is what President Donald Trump is doing in spades in the United States – protectionism and anti-globalism that threaten the very rules-based fabric of the modern trading world. We need to remember we don’t have the scale of the US. New Zealand is made up of islands in the middle of nowhere, with hardly any people, and the only way we can survive is to trade – to be better, faster, more agile and more clever than other nations.

Other parts of Government want to free the way for exports as fast as they can. They want to encourage new thinking, products and markets, while doing what they can to preserve the existing. They understand the only way out of this mess is exports. They are working hard to preserve trade rules and agreements and forge new ones. They are our “can-do” people. They want to open doors and clear the way, not wait till you are close to the door then slam it in your face.

Our road freight transport industry is very much in the “can-do” camp. Truck drivers, dispatchers and road freight operators have been quietly working throughout New Zealand since the lockdown, and more since the move to Level 3. Like many businesses that have been operating through the Government interventions to manage Covid-19, they have mostly been running at a loss. Some businesses could not operate through the lockdown, and they need a hand up.

But a hand up is different to a long period of handouts. We all pay, one way or another, for heavy State intervention. Increased taxes are the obvious first measure, but there is also the long-term damage to that “go getter” psyche we were once so proud of.

For business to survive and thrive we need to get out of Level 3. We need a clear view of the Government’s plans for how businesses will operate under Level 2 and Level 1 and we need that now. We are more than six weeks in and we know there is a massive team of public servants and highly-paid contractors working across the New Zealand Government on Covid-19 – they must have a clear plan of the way forward by now. And we believe we have the right to ask questions about that.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Mapping the road out of Level 4 lockdown

How interesting that three of the most vilified groups in New Zealand pre-Covid-19 – farmers, truck drivers and immigrants – are now the ones holding the country’s economy together.

This week, I met with Transport Minister Phil Twyford and his officials from the Ministry of Transport and I spoke before Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee. The messaging was the same – please recognise the vital work trucking operators and truck drivers are doing; please let the freight chain work as it should without the arbitrary terms of essential and non-essential freight; and how do we get our businesses out of this in one piece – what does life beyond the Level 4 lockdown look like?

I’d like to recognise the truck drivers who are transporting essential goods by road during this Level 4 lockdown. They are doing jobs they love, but they are more isolated than usual, from their whanau and colleagues. Our economy and well-being are tethered to trucking. My view is that these workers and transport operators have not perhaps had the recognition and thanks they deserve.

Our industry has yet again stepped up to meet need –  these are the people who are keeping supermarket shelves stocked, and medicine and equipment going into hospitals and pharmacies. They respond to need in just minutes and they get goods where they need to go.

I have been speaking to many trucking operators since the lockdown began and a lot of them are operating at a loss, because of the arbitrary labelling of freight as essential and non-essential.

Obviously, the longer this goes on, the more businesses will fail and the more people will be unemployed.

It’s imperative that transition options be developed before the lockdown ends so that businesses are able to prepare and can position themselves to be as productive as possible on day one. We have urged the Government to share the scenarios they are working on to move the country out of the Level 4 lockdown. We have offered to work with them to ensure our vital industry can do its bit to rebuild the economy, and retain jobs, as fast as possible. We are two weeks into a four week lockdown and we need serious strategy and planning now, to emerge successfully on 24 April.

We need that information as early as possible to allow for the least painful transition – to keep people employed, and to keep the economy moving on the back of a truck.

Interestingly, we are not alone. Internationally, those representing road freight during this global pandemic are finding the same issues and asking for the same solutions.

IRU (the world’s road transport organisation based in Geneva) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation have issued a joint statement calling for support from governments and international bodies to ensure international supply and mobility chains remain connected during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The statement sets out the road transport industry’s key demands and calls for immediate action to recognise the important contributions to society made by road transport workers and companies, and industry’s vital role in responding to, and overcoming, the current coronavirus crisis. There is definite cross-over with what we are asking for and what they are asking for. You can read the statement here.

I will finish with the words of IRU Secretary General, Umberto de Pretto: “The Covid-19 pandemic has turned the spotlight on road transport – showing once more the indispensable role road transport companies and their workers play in the movement of essential goods. Support for the continuity and resilience of supply and mobility chains, and the designation of road transport as a key service must be prioritised by governments and international bodies to aid the response and recovery from this crisis.”

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Free up freight to keep the economy moving

Week one of the Government’s lockdown has been a grim one for business. Air New Zealand is a shadow of its former koru, Bauer media shut its doors, and the forestry industry is in dire straits.

Most businesses are feeling the pain, with no end in sight. Even while the Government focuses on the health aspects of the global pandemic that is Covid-19, part of its enormous resources needs to be looking at economic recovery.

In a democracy, you can’t lock up a population and keep them terrified with mind-blowing numbers of fatalities for too long, without some serious questions being asked. Words like “unprecedented”, “we’re all in this together” and “the new normal” are carefully crafted to maintain control. But in the lounge rooms around New Zealand people are losing their livelihoods and there won’t be enough money to maintain that for too long.

The solution that has been mooted of a Depression-era road building gang under yet another government department’s control cannot be the only way out of this.

While we desperately need better roads, there have to be viable businesses using them and people who have jobs to go to. And this project is being headed by Transport Minister Phil Twyford who previously said, “there has been an over-investment in roads and motorways for decades in this country”.

Everyone is scrutinising the behaviour of our leaders, so when the Health Minister flouts the lockdown rules and the Transport Minister has a 360 degree change of heart, it feels like the recovery strategy might be a bit shaky.

Talk of an “institute” to train workers for the road building smacks of creating an even more bloated public service – there are already training programmes for this and what about the Reform of Vocational Education? The only people assured of jobs through this are public servants.

Trucking essential goods is an essential industry, but trucking companies are doing this at a loss because they cannot operate their businesses efficiently.

Supply chain links vital to getting essential supplies where they need to go must be allowed to work if trucking companies are to survive long enough to meet the demands of the Covid-19 response.

The Government needs to listen to business people and understand how business works. It is the private sector that will re-build the economy, not the public sector. The public sector spending on infrastructure won’t dig us out of a hole. New Zealand needs to generate wealth as the Government will need someone to tax. They have to keep people in business and that’s not just big business either. Small and medium businesses are the backbone of our country. The government can’t afford to forget that.

The decision to classify freight into two arbitrary groups – essential and non-essential – shows a lack of understanding of what is an integrated global system.

You take one link out, and the whole chain starts grinding to a halt.

As an importing and exporting nation, goods have to be able to come in and go out.

But at the moment, goods deemed “non-essential”, such as logs and processed wood products, are not allowed to go out. That means other countries that don’t have these restrictions are taking our market-share and we may never get it back. The longer this goes on the more people in the New Zealand provinces where forestry is a key employer will be out of work and the more businesses will fold.

The imperative to plant one billion trees is out the window and down the road.

We can’t export without importing. We must be able to move goods. Workers are already working in the “new normal” conditions of social distancing and strict hygiene, so this is doable under Alert Level 4.

We know that it is vital that items deemed essential move quickly through the supply chain, and priority should be given to them. However, for the supply chain to actually function now, and during our nation’s economic recovery, the classification to control its movement should be scrapped.
– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Communicate clearly as the world changes daily

As we wake up each day to more changes to our world, communication is critical for businesses dealing with the global spread of COVID-19.

I know many businesses are facing pressure and business as usual is unlikely for some time. We are in a rapidly changing and unprecedented business environment when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For this reason it is essential that you are communicating with staff, suppliers and customers.

You need to assure all those you are in contact with that you are doing everything possible to prevent community spread of COVID-19.

Keep communication clear, factual and regular – daily if necessary. Be mindful of language as for many people, this is a very serious situation and people are feeling stressed and pressured.

RTF has heard of some primary food processing companies putting in measures to protect the integrity of their production line, including mandating that truck drivers sign a “declaration” each time they enter the premises to say they have not travelled overseas in the past two weeks.

Unfortunately, this is being done company-by-company, rather than in a co-ordinated way. So we are not sure what the basis of this decision-making is. There are currently no market access requirements, or requirements from the New Zealand Government for this type of measure.

But we also understand your customers may start implementing the measures they think are necessary to assure their customers that they are doing everything possible to prevent spread of COVID-19.

Please let the RTF know if there are any such changes to your supply chain, or any specific business issues you are having as a result of COVID-19.

All trucking companies should by now have a plan to manage their businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic. It needs to be a flexible plan, as we are seeing daily changes to operations worldwide, particularly when it comes to the supply chain.

RTF has set up a webpage dedicated to providing information to the trucking industry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. You can access it via our main page www.rtf.co.nz or directly here.

We are issuing regular circulars and fact sheets to advise businesses on the New Zealand response to coronavirus and these are available on the website.

It is important to use the accurate and verified information from the New Zealand Government as it applies to the New Zealand situation with COVID-19, not rely on information in the media or on social media. In particular, the Ministry of Health should be the source of all health related information and advice.

There are some measures specific to our industry that businesses should familiarise themselves with, including driver hygiene on the road and truck cleaning. There are no New Zealand guidelines on truck cleaning in a pandemic, but we have put on our website the very sound influenza pandemic advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This advice includes exposure risks for freight transport personnel; guidance on preparing workplaces for a flu pandemic; personal protective equipment; and truck cleaning.

Road freight transport is critical to maintaining continuity of vital operations in New Zealand at this time. RTF is working with the relevant authorities to ensure the vital links road freight transport provides remain effective.

You, our trucking community, are carrying the economy on the back of your trucks and we are here to ensure you can continue to do so.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Keep calm and carry on

It’s hard to know which is worse, the global spread of Covid-19, or coronavirus, or the panic and constant media barrage about it.

The RTF felt a bit like the canary in the coal mine when we wrote to the Government on 4 February and alerted them to the fact that businesses were already in trouble as a result of the virus in China, and we expected the situation to get worse. (Still haven’t had a reply to that, or a subsequent letter!)

Trucking is an early economic barometer. As soon as there is a squeeze in the global supply chain, trucking companies feel it. If goods aren’t coming into the country, or going out of the country, then there is no work for the trucks that normally move those goods.

Unfortunately, it took a month before anyone outside the trucking and forestry industries realised what we were saying was true. Once the first New Zealand Covid-19 case was confirmed last Friday, the Government kicked into gear.

Businesses may be feeling overwhelmed by the volume of information, mis-information, media, and public discussion about Covid-19. I have heard from the trucking industry that there are business continuity issues as work volumes decline, and some sectors have been hit worse than others. Please keep telling me about the effects on your businesses so we can advocate on your behalf.

New Zealand is being swept up in a global storm and much of what is happening is beyond our control. The good news is, we have really good government officials in the trade space who are working 24-7 to ensure our trade pathways operate at some level, if not at full capacity, so goods can come into and leave New Zealand.

I’ve said it before, but he continues to perform like a star, Ministry of Health director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is the trusted health official whose advice you should follow. Social media appears to have millions of “health experts” globally, but Dr Bloomfield is the voice of science, facts and reason.

The New Zealand Government remains the best and most accurate source of information for the situation here, both health and business wise. The Road Transport Forum is gathering the most up-to-date information we can to keep the industry informed and we have set up a dedicated Covid-19 webpage.

If the situation gets to pandemic and crisis-level, the RTF has plans in place to communicate directly with freight operators.

Trucks are a vital lifeline in a crisis – as we have seen with the Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquakes – and truck operators may be called on to move essential supplies and deal with the aftermath of a pandemic. We will be talking to the government about that.

If your business is struggling to keep staff, or you have to lay off staff, let the RTF know. There are other compatible industries that may be struggling to get staff so there could be some opportunities. The Government is talking about no stand-down period for the jobseeker benefit for those unemployed as a result of Covid-19. We hope they will confirm that next week.

The RTF is best-placed to work with government and to source accurate information, which we can also distribute through our associations to the industry.

While these are certainly worrying times, it is important to keep perspective. The first priority for businesses must be the health and welfare of their staff. There is detailed advice about that on our website.

Plan for the worst, with a crisis management plan, but hope for the best.

Until the director-general of health tells us otherwise, life should be going on as normal. Looking at the panic buying in supermarkets, there should be plenty of work for those trucks. We just don’t want to create the panic that came from the truck carrying toilet paper in Australia rolling and catching fire!

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

 

Communication key in dealing with coronavirus

With 24-7 news cycles, the rapid spread of both information and mis-information on social media, and a tendency for people to panic, communication in a crisis is critical.

Accurate information needs to flow so that people can adequately manage what’s happening in front of them. Sometimes the picture can be changing rapidly. A trusted source of facts and critical advice must be in place before a crisis spirals. And that information needs to be available across all channels – not just to those who are adept at Google searching.

The Road Transport Forum (RTF) is aware the Covid-19, or coronavirus, is already having an impact on trucking businesses across a number of sectors. This is to be expected in a trading country where imports and exports to our far-flung corner of the world rely on a well-oiled global shipping network. To get goods on and off the ships, you need trucks. If the ships aren’t coming and going, then neither are trucks.

If you follow global shipping news, coronavirus is “convulsing every segment of the shipping industry, including container shipping, dry bulker, tanker, port, shipbuilding and banking”. (Lloyd’s List)

That’s not good news for New Zealand. The impacts on moving imports and exports are not going to be short-term here. I know this because I have been talking to ports and to operators across sectors, including forestry, freight forwarding, primary sector, and livestock.

The RTF is in the process of gathering information for our industry and setting up a communications network should there be a pandemic as a result of the spread of Covid-19.

Of course, the health and wellbeing of our nation is the most important thing and the Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has been a communications exemplar. He’s held regular face-to-face updates with media and shown a willingness to answer questions – not the often-seen blocking by government department tsars, or dependence on information on a website. It’s reassuring to have Dr Bloomfield at the helm of health if this does develop into a pandemic.

We have been disappointed, so far, by the lack of communication to sectors such as ours about a “whole of government” response to what is already happening across businesses that drive the economy. Speeches from the Prime Minister and Finance Minister do not filter through to the government workers on the ground in the provinces, at least not for those in the trucking industry who have tried to contact them.

On 4 February, RTF wrote to Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni, asking for urgent advice from the Government for trucking operators and staff in the log transport industry. We asked for a no stand down period for the unemployment benefit and some kind of tax relief.

That letter bounced around Parliament from Minister to Minister with no response, so on 26 February, RTF wrote to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

We have again asked for immediate removal of stand down periods for benefits for those affected by this economic shock, and that tax relief is given by IRD to road freight operators and contractors who will struggle to meet upcoming tax payments. We have gone right to the top because operators are telling me how serious this is getting. We want to believe the Government has a good plan to get New Zealand through what could become a global pandemic.

RTF is listening to operators and we will continue to push the government to help our sector as the impacts of coronavirus really take hold.

Meanwhile, below are some websites that have information about coronavirus.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Places to get information about Covid-19

Ministry of Health https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus or Healthline – 0800 358 5453

Ministry for Primary Industries https://www.mpi.govt.nz/exporting/coronavirus-and-the-effects-on-trade/

Business New Zealand https://www.businessnz.org.nz/data/assets/pdf_file/0007/187783/200217-coronavirus-website-advisory.pdf

Safetravel – Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade https://safetravel.govt.nz/news/covid-19-coronavirus

Information for businesses https://www.business.govt.nz/news/coronavirus-information-for-businesses

Tax relief https://www.ird.govt.nz/Updates/News-Folder/tax-relief-coronavirus

What’s in a brand?

The barrage of news about Harry and Meghan’s divorce from the British royal family is a great study in the highs and lows of branding, and its importance in today’s world.

Either naively, or ill-advised, Harry and Meghan decided to adopt a royal brand, and create a fancy new website and social media pages under the moniker “sussexroyal”. That was before they told the actual holder of the royal brand – Her Majesty the Queen – what they were planning to do.

Meghan is an American actress and therefore, she knows all about social media, websites, personal branding and publicity. Her sussexroyal Instagram has more than 11 million followers already.

The Queen holds a centuries old birth right, bestowed upon her by religion and tradition, and it turns out she knows a lot more about the importance of royalty than the newcomer. The sussexroyal website is now under review and we will be updated in due course. They may lose their carefully crafted personal brand name. The unhappy couple are now in damage control. They are a hot mess – on one hand needing the media to survive, and on the other unclear of what their message to the world is, and telling the media they are not allowed access. About the worst thing you can ever do is tell the media they can’t have access unless of course, you are trying to drum up even more media.

For those of us in road transport, the specific scenario is far removed, but the importance of a company’s identity, public message and brand, is not something to under-estimate. In a fast-moving media environment, reputations can be won and lost in a matter of minutes.

Road freight transport is not yet in the same situation as farming. Farmers are being unfairly pilloried from all angles, including the state-funded education system. But as users of fossil fuels and public roads, we are not the most popular of brands out there. No one is saying this is fair. It’s our role to continually remind both the public and government decision-makers of the great value we bring to their lives and the New Zealand economy.

For many road freight companies their brand is a family name. Any hit to the brand, has far reaching consequences, including personal ones.

Given the wired world we are working in, and the unpredictability of the regulatory environment, it’s wise to think about having a plan in place if things go wrong and you are faced with a situation that could damage your brand, and therefore, your business.

Here is a basic process you should plan to have in place before disaster strikes, in order of importance:

  1. Make sure your staff know exactly what is happening and what your company policy is on speaking about it to anyone outside the company, including customers and media. Keep staff regularly updated. You will need staff goodwill, so protect your staff throughout.
  2. Talk to your customers. Outline what the situation is and what you are doing about it. Scale the size of the problem – it may only be small and easily fixed – and have a confident, solution-driven focus. Keep talking to your customers and keep them updated. Be available.
  3. Get expert advice. You may need a lawyer and/or someone to help you with communicating to your customers and the media – particularly if you need to do this at speed and regularly. People are looking for a clear path to resolution – what’s the problem, how are you fixing it, and when will you be back to business as usual.
  4. Talk to your staff and customers before you talk to the media – this is very important as it is easy to panic and get side tracked by media. Don’t answer their phone calls until you know what you are going to say. Be very clear with media and don’t venture off your script. Saying the same few lines over and over is the best way for your message to get through. It should boil down to “we know there is a problem, we are fixing it in this way”.
  5. Be prepared for backlash and have a plan. Brands can be taken down overnight via social media. If you think competitors, disgruntled ex-staff, or just a personal enemy are going to use this situation to hurt you, plan ahead to counter this. The sussexroyal team are constantly plagued by Meghan’s disgruntled family, including her father Thomas Markle. Meghan and Harry largely ignore her vocal family members, which is the best strategy in their circumstances. They don’t give the detractors air.

If you cover these five critical points, you will be well placed to deal with any business blips.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum