An honest conversation about COVID19: Ministerial Response


I think we need to be clear up a few points of misunderstanding that people seem to have around New Zealand’s management of COVID19. A combination of misinformation being fed by news agencies such as Newstalk ZB, individuals such as Billy Te Kahika of the New Zealand Public Party and poor communications from Parliament have led to an unfortunate fog of confusion that simply does not need to exist. It is incumbent on all who know fact from fiction to make of the truth.

New Zealand has a public service that is, compared to the rest of the world, with the exception of the Scandanavian countries, very transparent about its activities. Successive Government’s have for the most part tried to maintain that transparency, which is why Transparency International has consistently rated New Zealand as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. And there are good reasons for it:

  • Whilst the Government watchdogs such as the Privacy and Human Rights Commissioners are sometimes put under undue pressure by the Government, they enjoy a freedom to operate that simply does not exist in a lot of other countries – the one time I remember a politician making a credible threat was Prime Minister John Key telling the Human Rights Commission to get into line or risk losing its funding
  • We have a high level of media freedom, but also a Broadcast Standards Authority that people can take complaints about the conduct of media outlets to, with a reasonable expectation that they will be looked into and
  • Whilst the Official Information Act is sometimes perceived as not working, is that really a failure of the Act itself, or the agencies that give effect to the Act – like any legislation it is only ever as good as the agency or agencies giving effect to it

So what has this got to do with COVID19?

Quite a lot. These checks are not adequate in my opinion, yet they along with a relatively well working legal system help to ensure that New Zealand’s elected officials and public service work to a high standard. They serve to give the public faith in the system, because the public are able to go explore options such as going to the Ombudsman’s office, or, if that fails, going to the media.

But it also means that the Government of New Zealand has access to information and data that is likely to be of a correspondingly higher standard. The officials that have been working on our COVID19 response will have been informed about the standards of honesty expected and the consequences of not meeting that standard.

Of course there will be a few along the way who do not. What happens to them is in part dependent on what they did, but also how serious their offence was. Most of the failures, are not at Ministerial level, but in lower and middle level management. Thus whilst the Minister is responsible at a national level, they cannot take responsibility for privacy and other reasons for someone failing to to do their job at Auckland airport for arguments sake. The slips at the border were most likely by people in middle management who overstepped their limits, or failed to spot a potential case. In the same way the Minister of Health cannot be responsible for whether a medical practice sacks a nurse or doctor for serious misconduct (in the first case the practice is responsible, but it can be referred to the Nursing Council or Royal College of General Practitioners), the Minister of Transport is not responsible for whether Aviation Security sack Joe Security for failing to direct someone displaying COVID19 symptoms to step aside, whilst appropriate arrangements are made.

So, whilst you are understandably frustrated if someone goes into the community with COVID19, it is not necessarily the Government to blame. They are reliant on everyone under them being honest about what is going on, including whether they are appropriately resourced, trained, staffed and so forth, but it is responsibility of the agencies tasked with the border work to DO the border work.

 

Hybrid vs Electric car – New Zealand market warming up


When the Government announced in 2018 that New Zealand would give up oil and gas by 2050, many people, myself included tried to imagine what New Zealand’s vehicle fleet would look like then. Some of us might have envisaged huge plug in walls at supermarkets and service stations. Some might have thought about how the bulky power cords that exist in electric cars such as the B.M.W. i3 and whether people would be willing to drive around and find somewhere they could leave them on charge overnight.

Reality did not take long to bite. Many New Zealanders can only afford a second hand car that might cost N.Z.$15,000 or so, and might have several years of age. When petrol prices, registration and maintenance are factored in, even that becomes a challenge for a number of people. Because of that our car fleet is one of the oldest in the western world. Australia, for all its lack of action on climate change has forbidden a car to be older than 10 years, whereas Toyota Surf’s, Subaru Legacy’s and Ford Falcon’s from the mid 1990’s are still commonly seen on New Zealand’s roads.

Electric charging cars are being challenged by a surge in hybrid options, especially from Toyota, whose aim is to provide a hybrid option for every single vehicle type in its range by 2025. Toyota’s hybrid range thus far includes:

  • Camry (N.Z.$41,490)
  • Corolla (N.Z.$33,490)
  • RAV4 (N.Z.$47,990)
  • Prius
  • Yaris (to be confirmed)

The ones still to have hybrid options included are the 86, C-HR, Fortuner Highlander, Prado and Prado 200. Notably the newer additions to the New Zealand range have existed overseas for several years. Toyota announced in 2012 that it was going to introduce a RAV4 hybrid, whereas they have only just started to appear in New Zealand in recent months. The same company introduced a hybrid Yaris to the market the same year.

But the electric car market is fighting back. Nissan, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Tesla have all introduced models to the market. Depending on age of the vehicle model and the year when it was new, prices range from $8,000-$15,000 for the Mitsubishi i-MiEV at one end of the scale to $90,000+ for Tesla’s Model S. In fairness to electric cars, which have the perception of needing to be plugged in more frequently than perhaps they do, the longest range ones can go up to 540km in the case of the Tesla Model S. Other models are more restrictive and the shortest range ones might be best as urban area run-abouts.

It also has Government support on its side as petroleum and diesel vehicles are going to be phased out by 2050. And lofty as these plans might seem, if a bit of forward planning is done, there are also significant economic benefits from making the New Zealand private vehicle fleet more efficient. The question is, do the motoring lobby want to know?

 

Alternatives to road transport dip out – again – in National transport document


National is proposing to remove fuel taxes if it is elected to office in 2020. And then effectively reinstate them as road user charges. Which to the ordinary New Zealander on the road means one thing only: we still pay for it – just under another name.

National spokesperson for Transport, Chris Bishop announced the new proposal in National’s newly released transport discussion document.

In fairness, Mr Bishop may have a point about fairness of payment methods. A less efficient vehicle might use more fuel per kilometre than a newer vehicle, especially if it is a hybrid, which is designed for low petrol use or an electric car. His solution to introduce road user charges intend to ensure that the kilometres a vehicle drives will determine how much in the way of road user charges a driver has to pay.

How will the road user charges be administered. My father owns a 1995 Toyota Surf that runs on diesel. He has to pay new charges every 10,000 kilometres. Is that an appropriate frequency in terms of kilometres travelled to pay new charges? How would this be administered to petroleum driven cars and after how many thousands of kilometres would new charges have to be paid for?

But the basic fundamental National Party paranoia about “tax”, “taxes” and “taxation” and the desperation to redress need to find replacement funding to cover what would be lost from scrapping the “tax” is at the heart of the subject – if you believe Stuff. What Stuff ignore though is perhaps not so much the fact that National is playing games with the type of funding mechanism that they use to fund roading, as it is that railways, the merchant marine and public transport once again seem to dip out in the discussion document. Perhaps – which would be legitimate for a discussion document, they are credibly asking what the funding priorities should be in these areas, in which case credit to them. But if after an election they win National choose to let these areas slip and slide away, it will be to New Zealand’s detriment.

National also appear to be playing a game of two islands. The North Island comes up in terms of funding announcements, but the South Island often dips out. Neither Christchurch, nor Dunedin seem to rate mentions in terms of funding or what National thinks it might do – or not do. There are several things that could be done, not least:

  • Making Otira tunnel safe for all trains to transit through again without the risk of coal dust causing an explosion and/or fire.
  • Using the South Island Main Trunk Line more for freight, especially through the Kaikoura area where some trucks are simply not made for those roads
  • Introduce a Lyttelton to Wellington/Lyttleton to Port Chalmers ferry service that could take freight and passengers if railways are not efficient enough

This is not to say National’s discussion document is a waste of time. I welcome it and I hope that constructive discussion is generated by it – even if I don’t want a National Party victory.

Hydrogen cars for New Zealand?


On the television the other night I saw an advert from Hyundai about a new car that they are working on. It is NEXO. The ad shows a four wheel drive vehicle mounted and claims that the only emissions coming out are water.

If these claims by Hyundai are true then this is quite revolutionary. It offers a potential carbon free fuel cell option for cars. Hydrogen’s volatility is well known – the Hindenburg airship was filled with it and exploded in flames when struck by lightning in Paris – but because hydrogen is lighter than air it will have no problems dissipating, which is important because it to reduce likelihood of the fuel catching fire should the tank be punctured. But, in terms of climate change, hydrogen has NO carbon attached. It is simply H.

This raises a very interesting point to a topic of interest at the moment in New Zealand. What if Tiwai point is shut down because the owners cannot get a satisfactory deal for electricity? Tiwai Point gets its electricity from Manapouri power station deep in Fiordland and that electricity is not minor – Manapouri generates about 850 megawatts, of which about 530 megawatts are used by Tiwai point. All of this is electricity that would flood the market if it were no longer required and – some people honestly hope – will bring down power prices.

But this is not a new problem – it has been threatened before that the Tiwai Point facility will shut at some point and a whole lot of hemming and hawing has gone on about what to do with the electricity should it all be released to the market. I personally think it should be, but I am aware that hundreds of jobs – quite well paying ones at that in many instances – would be on the line.

IBut back to the hydrogen question. Is Tiwai Point actually seriously likely to close? If Tiwai Point aluminium smelter were to close and hydrogen vehicles did become a credible alternative to fossil fuel powered cars, it would be a useful location to establish a hydrogen plant. It would potentially maintain many of the jobs that would probably be lost if the smelter were to close, thereby continuing to provide a large source of employment to the Invercargill/Southland electorates.

With an election not more than 12 months away, supporting the development of hydrogen as a fuel source for cars in New Zealand is a great opportunity for which ever party has the gonads to try something different. Electric vehicles are not only hitting a bit of a stumbling block over price and fuel consumption, but also having to confront the fact that most New Zealanders simply cannot afford one. Could hydrogen fuel cell vehicles fill the void?

Time for N.Z.T.A. overhaul


New Zealand Transport Authority is a Government agency in strife. Racked by resignations, battered by damning staff survey responses and under the microscope internally for failings in the public arena, life must be tough being an N.Z.T.A. staff member.

The onus is on the N.Z.T.A. to acknowledge the harm it is doing to itself and to its staff. It becomes clear that the staff are feeling unappreciated, put down and lacking the empowerment necessary to perform their basic functions. When coupled with serious external failures such as not properly auditing a number of service stations and other automotive repair businesses on their issuance of Warrants of Fitness (W.O.F.), which led to hundreds, possibly thousands of cars being potentially improperly warranted, a issue of public interest is present.

Over the last year or more there has been a major recall of Takata airbags, after potentially fatal flaws were found in them. Takata airbags are found in a lot of New Zealand vehicles and the recall has resulted in thousands of cars having to get their airbags replaced. The recall is ongoing. Whilst this has not been linked to any problems at N.Z.T.A. that I am aware of, it reminds me of other road safety issues that N.Z.T.A. has been slow to act on:

  • Tour buses that are not roadworthy,
  • Bus drivers driving tour buses with little or no understanding or regard for New Zealand roads and conditions
  • Bus drivers who are not licenced
  • Explosion of large and oversized rigs on roads not fit to carry them
  • Dangerously long working hours for long haul drivers across numerous sectors

The safety of people, which should be paramount has been viewed otherwise. After major crashes, the Coroner examines the evidence gathered and makes recommendations. All too often – and this is not a problem unique to the transport sector – they are not fully implemented or simply ignored outright. And people wonder why accidents continue to happen.

The N.Z.T.A. is like any other public organization. It has accountability to the tax payer as much as it has accountability to the Ministry of Transport and the Government. This is in a decade where toxic internal workplace environments and their effects on employees has become a major occupational safety and health issue.Have the N.Z.T.A. got the message that for them to be a good employer, its internal culture, composition and leadership need to improve?

Or is the workplace culture of N.Z.T.A. a bit like the outmoded philosophy that it has operated on for too long now that motorways are king, whilst buses, trains and shipping are second class? I sincerely hope not, but I do wonder.