The Pogues have a song on their album ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’ titled, ‘Navigator’. It is a homage to 19th Century Railway workers (the navigator or navvy) and is about the hardship suffered by those who built the railways in often dangerous and hostile conditions for the ‘supply of an empire where the sun never set’.
The song had a special resonance for me, as a considerable number of my relatives had worked on the Railways at various times. My father was the last. He worked on the New Zealand Railways for over 35 years, starting as a Surface man and retiring as a Ganger in the mid 1980s.
New Zealand Railways (NZR) as it was known then, was a completely different creature to what it is now (Kiwi Rail). Firstly, it was well staffed, being one of the major state employers in New Zealand. Secondly, it was well financed (it had not been asset stripped and plundered) and lastly, it was busy. There were lots of trains, going lots of places. The tracks were full of goods trains and passenger trains which took people and/or rolling stock to where they wanted to go or where they were needed. I remember as a child, accompanying the old man to work (safety regulations weren’t really in force in the 1970s) and watching the trains trundle by and, from memory, there were a lot of them.
The Railways employed thousands of people in diverse jobs ranging from those who served the tea, to shunters, drivers, labourers, gangers, station staff and on to painters, plumbers and electricians. The Railways managed and rented their own houses for married and single people. There were railway communities and even towns. I grew up in a railway house, which was essentially a statehouse owned and administered by the Railway’s Department, and went to school with friends whose parents were also employed by the Railways.
Why the bout of nostalgia? It came about as a result of the Government’s infrastructure package, which placed more money and support in the hands of road transport. Despite all the talk about supporting public transport upgrades, the Government supplied yet more resources to the road transport lobby, fronted by former National (Muldoon) Cabinet Minister, Tony Friedlander.
Yet, if ever there was an agency that would be prefect for significant infrastructural investment it would be New Zealand Rail. As the world finally staggers away from its drunken dalliance with the free market and towards economies that are employment and (more) environmental friendly; and where investment in people and communities are more important then the ‘brass in the pockets of entrepreneurs’, then projects that promote that vision need to come to the fore. Rail is certainly one of those projects.
For the past 20 years, the road lobby has done very well as the rail network has been systematically dismantled and sold off. While, most people think this was because of the work undertaken by former Labour Minister of Railways, Richard Prebble (who ‘saved’ rail by sacking most NZR workers and shutting down significant sections of its operations), the decline of the Railways started in the early 1980s with then Minister of Rail, Colin Mclaughlin corporatising the railways and asking the ideologically driven US Accounting firm, Booze, Allen and Hamilton to undertake a cost analysis of the railway system.
Prebble, of course later took up the Booz Allen Hamilton Report, after first saying that he wouldn’t and then proceeded to implement it. He later acted as a consultant for the buyers during the privatisation of TransRail by the Bolger National Government in 1993. Since then, New Zealand rail has been in private hands and has been systematically asset stripped. When it was finally brought back (renationalised) by the Labour Government in 2008, it was facing complete financial and infrastructural collapse.
The fact is that railways are very effective as a domestic employer and as a maintainer of the domestic economy. (A point worth noting in a recession). Its network of branch lines went practically everywhere in the country from large cities to small towns, ensuring ease of travel and the easy shifting of frieght. In terms of frieght. the Railways also kept very large and expensive trucks off New Zealand roads, with the 75 km limit. This ensured that goods had to be transferred to rail. With the lifting of the limit and the reorganisation of rail, freight levels dropped in the 1980s and 1990s, aided by the formers owners shifting goods to road. Only recently has this decline been reversed. In 2008, there was more freight on rail than at anytime since 1975 (although, the amount of total freight in New Zealand has increased over the 1980s and 90s).
In a world that is facing the prospect of fuel shortages, where people are paying increasing amounts of money on petrol and petroleum products and where road taxes are used to subsidise the building of highways (and the trucking lobby), surely a cleaner and effective option is rail. Its time has (re)come.
Sadly, this does not appear to be the case in New Zealand, which as of always, lags behind everyone else.
Last Thursday night I attended the first Christchurch event of ‘Drinking Liberally’, which appeared to be organized by the local Young Labour members in Christchurch. While, I am given to understand that ‘Drinking Liberally’ is supposed to be a ‘left’ forum, a number of the issues discussed related specifically to the Labour Party and how Labour could be better organized to win the next election.
I don’t want to discuss this aspect of ‘Drinking Liberally’ in this posting. However, I do want to draw upon several comments provided by the guest speaker to the event, EPMU General Secretary (and incoming Labour President) Andrew Little in relation to the ‘Fire at Will Bill’ (which at that point) was being pushed through the House by the National led Government. In a question to Andrew about the Union’s reaction to the Bill’s passing and what their course of action would be, he responded that when the Bill was formally put into effect in April 2009, then the Unions (and one assumes the Labour Party) would act.
The comments reminded me of an episode from Blackadder III. In which Blackadder and Baldrick had been captured by the ‘evil’ French Revolutionaries and were to be executed by guillotine the next day. Baldrick immediately thinks of a cunning plan which involves Blackadder and Baldrick doing nothing until AFTER they had been guillotined. Baldrick explains that his rationale behind this course of action was because chickens, after they had their heads cut off, ran round and round the farmyard and out of the gate.
The strategy of the CTU and the Labour party appears to be roughly the same. Wait until the blade slices off your head and then grab it, run around the farmyard and out the gate. Or, in this case wait until after the Government passes the 90 Day Probation Bill and then oppose it. To be fair, the CTU have started up an email campaign against the Bill which by Thursday night had gained 2000 signatures. However, the main assault against the Bill is to come in April. Up until that time, the Unions (and one assumes the Labour Party) will conduct an extremely low level campaign of networking.
In France, when the newly elected Conservative Government attempted to pass employment laws punishing French youth several years ago, there was mass civil unrest. Even in the United Kingdom, one of the more conservative of the European nations, unjust laws have been met with protests. While, I am not suggesting unrest on the French scale, the New Zealand left could do worst than organize marches, protests and the like to show its disquiet against this fascistic Bill before its passing.
It appears however, that the strategy of the Unions (and of the Labour Party) is the same as in the 1990s. Wait until the Bill is passed and then pray to hell that a Labour Government gets elected next term and removes it.
It’s a very sad and tepid strategy.
Just days into the new Government and already National has introduced laws which allow employers to fire at will a worker in a small business in the first 90 days of employment, gut KiwiSaver by halving employer KiwiSaver contributions and gives big tax cuts to people on high incomes, but increases taxes for workers on $20,000 per year or a two-income family with 2 children on $50,000 per year.
This is bad news for workers. And removing basic work rights does not make the economy more productive. It is a bad start from a new government. Let them know all you want for Christmas is fair work rights.
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The re-introduction of Wayne Mapp’s 90 Day Probation Bill was no surprise. What was a surprise was the manner in which the new National led administration decided to implement it, under parliamentary urgency right before Christmas.
As No Right Turn notes (and has been reported in today’s Press) a number of the Bills are being drafted even as I write and will be placed before the House without any advanced notification or discussion of their contents by MPs. They will then be passed by the Government without any public submission.
The 90 Day Probationary Bill for new Employees is one of the more contentious and undemocratic of the new measures. Right wing advocates such as Phil (Baba) O’ Reilly, CEO of Business New Zealand have lauded its introduction, adding that the Bill had been submitted previously and therefore, subjected to the select committee process. O’Reilly has also attempted to field off criticism by claiming that other nations in the OECD have similar pieces of legislation. (Hmmm…quite).
The facts are there is already a probationary period in the Employment Relations Act 2000 and has been since its inception. The difference between what is presently in the Act and what is being proposed in the Bill is that under the proposed legalisation for the first 90 days of a person’s employment an employer has the right to fire someone without facing legal redress, in the form of a personal grievance or appeal. Under the present legislation employers have to go through a procedure to dismiss someone such as warnings etc. These are all open to appeal. Under the new changes, these will go by the board.
Kate Wilkinson, the Minister of Labour sniffed this morning on National Radio (sorry, Radio New Zealand National) that the opponents of the Bill had got it all wrong, as it will only apply to new employees in industries of 20 people or less. It does not take a master genius to work out that this is a substantive section of the New Zealand workforce and that larger employers will be lobbying for the Bill’s extension into their areas.
Most alarming though, is the manner in which the Bill is being passed and that it effectively removes at one swoop, the rights of, and defence and redress to, new workers. This is truly fascistic. It denies people their rights under natural justice. It effectively makes them non-citizens for the first 90 days of their employment. At this point an employer can, if they wish, fire them on a whim and face no redress – this is democratic how?
It is (or was) common coinage of the left to accuse the right of being fascist. But this Bill is truly that. A Bill which poses such a direct attack on the rights of people and denies them those rights under natural justice to defend their claims through Unions or appeal to the Courts is a law that owes more to 1930s Italy under Il Duce Benito Mussolini than it does to a democratic state. Any Bill that strips away such rights needs to be openly debated and discussed, not rushed through parliament in a shady session.
However, the 90 Day Bill is systematic of the approach of the right since the election. This has been to treat the last 9 years as a minor annoyance and to get back to where they left off in the 1990s. However, Baba, Rodney, Roger and the other right wing advocates and apologists just don’t get it. While, they won the election, it was a win seemingly motivated by boredom rather than a desire for substantive change (which is what drove election victories in 1984, 1990 and 1999). Indeed, when National suggested marked deviations away from that policy undertaken by the Labour –led Governments from 1999, (such as suggesting asset sales) it was met with marked hostility from the public. This forced Key and National to back down from these areas.
I suspect that John Key wants to be the Keith Holyoake of the modern National Party. However, Holyoake won four terms, whereas Key has only just been elected for his first. Also, Holyoake won those elections by being largely noncontentious and by seeking consensus. Key could take a lesson from that. People don’t want a return to the 1980s and 1990s. Policy which lessens rights in areas of the economy employment and other social provision (such as the 90 Day Bill) and moves New Zealand back to those ‘dark’ decades will be contentious and unpopular.
Contentious policy which leads to public unpopularity does not bode well for second terms.