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

Lack of investment in roads will cost us all

We continue to see evidence of the importance of roads in New Zealand. We have a geographically challenging country and the way we all connect to one another is via roads – 93,000 kilometres of them.

Last week, the 2017-18 National Freight Demand Study was released, showing road transport is the major mode of travel for all our domestic and export food and goods, carrying about 93 percent of the total of 280 million tonnes moved during that period.

On a tonnes per kilometre basis, road transport has grown 16 percent between the 2014 and 2019 reports, while rail has dropped 17 percent. The official word in the report is that the drop in rail freight reflects the impact of the Kaikoura earthquake, and the reduction in coal traffic in 2017-18. I guess you have to grasp at excuses when the evidence doesn’t support the ideological direction of the Government. The contention of the RTF is that the improvement of truck payload efficiency is the real reason for the shift between rail and road. Over the past six years, HPMV and 50Max gains have been realised in dairy, logs, livestock, aggregates, and petroleum distribution, as new vehicles have replaced older, less efficient ones.

This picture, with the backdrop of a tightening economy, suggests the Government should be recognising the correlation between our roads and our way of life.

Sadly, this is not the case. While the Government has quite rightly focused on some aspects of road safety, they don’t seem to connect the importance of the roads themselves, to the safety of the people using them.

We are seeing this in the lowering of speed limits on main highways all around the country. In the South Island, residents are petitioning the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to scrap proposed lower speed limits on State Highway 6, from Nelson to Blenheim. NZTA cites accident numbers to say the road is unsafe and is proposing reducing the speed from 100 km/h to 80 km/h. If approved, the entire length of SH6 between the two towns, about 110 kilometres, would be not more than 80km/h at any point. NZTA says the “technical assessment of the state of the road” was the reason behind the proposed reduced speed limit.

This is also happening on State Highway 1, around Warkworth and Puhoi north of Auckland, where there is a proposal to reduce the speed limit from 100 km/h to 80 km/h, for 15 kilometres. This is our main state highway north out of our major city, Auckland.

And we are seeing road closures because of a lack of investment. The Manawatu-Taranaki-King Country regions are being significantly impacted by two state highways closed by slips – SH4 between Whanganui and Raetihi and SH43 between Mangaparo and Kururau Road, part of the Forgotten Highway. These road closures are of considerable concern to businesses and residents in these regions, who are facing long and expensive detours. People are losing money, daily. This is busy dairy and logging country and it’s a busy time of year. For years, locals on SH4 have been warning the road needed attention. Now, they are looking at a year, if not years of it being closed. There are school children on one side who cannot get to school on the other side of the slip. This doesn’t just affect this region. It has an impact on all of us when goods we rely on have to travel further to get to us. That means they cost more, at a time when household budgets have very little slack.

What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts – of our roads and subsequently, of our back pockets. Not fixing roads and lowering speed limits to accommodate not fixing roads will slow us down and cost us more. The Government says it’s nine minutes here, or seven minutes there, but it all adds up to a total journey. As the Nelson locals say, it also causes perverse behaviour. When people are slowed down, they do stupid things.

There’s ideology, not strategy at play. There is no big picture thinking – what is the total impact of dropping the speed limit to 80 km/h on 110 kilometres of road that is used to transport for example, valuable horticulture products to export markets? If two main roads are closed for a long period of time, what is the total impact to all New Zealanders of the additional business costs that generates?

While the Government would have people believe less trucks on the road is a good thing, it’s not. It’s less jobs. It’s less money in rural and provincial New Zealand. It’s decline not growth. It’s the inconvenience of not having what you want when you want it. It’s higher prices for essentials like food. And at the end of the day, it finally impacts those in the cities as well.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum