Monday 21 May 2018

The Boy On The Tram.

The Story-Teller: Asked to pronounce upon the wisdom – or otherwise – of the proposed Light Rail Network for Auckland, Prebble predictably opted for the telling anecdote. Viewers discovered that Prebble was not a fan of light rail. As a boy, they learned, he had travelled up Dominion Road by tram to school and the memory was not a happy one. “If anyone thinks trams up Dominion Road are going to solve Auckland’s transport problems,” declared Prebble with his trademark certainty, ”they’re dreaming.”

RICHARD PREBBLE has always been the master of the telling anecdote. A born politician of prodigious talent, he needed little formal coaching in the dark arts of political persuasion. From his halcyon days in the Fourth Labour Government, to the years he spent keeping Act above the 5 percent MMP threshold, Prebble’s knack for illustrating the need for change with a telling anecdote was always on display. Facts and figures are easily forgotten, but a good story settles into the voters’ memory and is extremely hard to extract.

When the state-owned railways Prebble had pledged to save were being “corporatized” (i.e. readied for sale to private buyers) a story began doing the rounds which Labour insiders always insisted came from Prebble’s Office. It was “The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer”.

According to this tale, New Zealand Railways and its staff were so incompetent (or was it corrupt and/or thieving?) that somewhere between its point of loading and its final destination an entire bulldozer had somehow been made to disappear into thin air. I lost count of the number of times the story was repeated. In Parliament; at Labour Party meetings; in the newspapers; on radio and television: The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer very soon came to stand for everything that was inefficient – if not downright dodgy – about New Zealand’s nationalised industries.

I was reminded of The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer only last Sunday when Richard Prebble popped-up on the panel of TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs show. Asked to pronounce upon the wisdom – or otherwise – of the proposed Light Rail Network for Auckland, Prebble predictably opted for the telling anecdote.

Viewers discovered that Prebble was not a fan of light rail. As a boy, they learned, he had travelled up Dominion Road by tram to school and the memory was not a happy one. “If anyone thinks trams up Dominion Road are going to solve Auckland’s transport problems,” declared Prebble with his trademark certainty, ”they’re dreaming.”

This was clever politics. The very idea that the snowy-haired Prebble could ever have been a tousled school-boy was itself preposterous. Surely, Prebble had emerged from his mother’s womb with a lawyer’s wig in one hand and a copy of Parliament’s Standing Orders in the other? Never mind. The image of this young chap making his way through the Auckland suburbs aboard something as quaintly retrograde as a tram was an arresting one. It spoke to the viewers of old technology and an Auckland that no longer existed. Effortlessly, Prebble’s telling anecdote had made the Auckland Light Rail project look like a costly and inefficient exercise in political nostalgia.

But was it true?

The problem with anecdotes is that they are notoriously difficult to verify. Though The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer was repeated endlessly by right-wing talkback hosts and political commentators, I don’t recall ever reading even one honest-to-goodness news story detailing the events leading up to the bulldozer’s disappearance; whether or not the vehicle was ever found; and, if it had been recovered, who was ultimately deemed responsible for misplacing it?

With this journalistic deficiency in mind, I set out to discover whether or not The Boy on the Tram story was true or false.

Thanks to the prodigious memory of Professor Google, I soon discovered that if Richard Prebble had travelled up Dominion Road on a tram, then he would have been a very young school-boy indeed. In fact, the oldest he could possibly have been was five – which seems a very young age to be travelling alone on any sort of public transport!

For the record, Prebble was born in 1948 and the tramline along Dominion Road came into service in 1930 and was decommissioned twenty-three years later in 1953. The reason for the service’s demise lay in the Auckland Transport Board’s 1949 decision to replace all of the city’s trams with trolley-buses. Accordingly, in 1956, the last of the highly-efficient, non-polluting, electric-powered trams which had served Auckland magnificently since 1902 ceased running and the tramlines were torn-up.

Auckland's Tramlines Network 1908-1956

My guess is that the young Richard Prebble who travelled up Dominion Road in the 1950s and 60s did not do so on a tram (a vehicle which runs on rails) but on an electric trolley-bus which drew down its motive power from overhead wires via long flexible poles. These vehicles were very prone to random stops and starts (as any Wellingtonian will tell you) on account of the fact that the conducting poles were forever becoming dislodged – forcing the driver to get out and very carefully reconnect them to the power source. [Trams also draw their motive power from overhead powerlines, but because the vehicle runs on tracks, allowing the conducting apparatus to be fixed to the tram’s roof, they are much less prone to breaking down.]

Now, it may be that Richard Prebble was simply confused about the modes of public transport he used in his youth. Then again, he may not have been confused at all. What isn’t in dispute is that the opponents of the plans for a light-rail-based public transport system in Auckland are forever using the word “tram”.

The reason for this is obvious. In the public’s mind trams are cumbersome, out-of-date vehicles from the days when men sported trilby hats and women wore ankle-length skirts. Prebble’s Boy on the Tram story plays directly into these negative public stereotypes. Regardless of whether or not his political anecdote is true, it is, as always, bloody clever.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 May 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

I was at Auckland University with Richard Prebble – loosely speaking. He often spoke at the lunchtime forums. I see he hasn't changed. I'll say no more.

greywarbler said...

If Prebble was persuasive when in political power, and used anecdotes as a basis for decision making, I can see why we are up the river of poo without a paddle now. How's that for a telling analogy that strikes at the centre of the mind in a distasteful way.

Where in Prebble's comment is there a relevant fact. It is just another OWMWMSFH; not at all evidence-based and apparently not even actual nostalgia going by the dates. (Old White Middle-class Wise Man Suffering From Hubris.)

I did travel by tram at a young age, being sent from Meadowbank to learn ballet at a hall near Newmarket. I found it reliable, enjoyable, and when I didn't get off at the right spot, able to provide pastoral care and put me on a return tram to be dropped off at my destination. Anyway I think that is what happened. I wasn't at all frightened, and can recommend the service with its varnished slat seats and the enclosed cabin with large wihdows and the effective way it trundled down the middle of the road from one island stop to another. Fact.
(Evidence-based practice is a philosophical approach that is in opposition to rules of thumb, folklore, and tradition.Wikipedia)

Anonymous said...

I have a tale like the bulldozer but have no idea if it is true or not.

A railway wagon load of Wilsons Whisky was loaded at the goods shed in Dunedin under the the supervision of a security officer from the distillery and the Railways Dunedin freight manager and the doors sealed.

When the wagon arrived at its destination the wagon was empty despite the door seals still being intact.

BlisteringAttack said...

The trams were great in San Francisco & numerous other European cities I have visited.

Polly. said...

Good little story Chris;
This coalition is starting to unravel with ill thought out projects.
Does anyone believe anything that the Labour Party is preaching to us, in particular the Twyford election lies about how many affordable cheap houses he intends to build to help poorer people purchase.
Then prices started to circulate of $600.000 for a two bedroom flat.
Houses on a section disappeared from Twyfords speeches.
The "only to be sold to first homebuyers" has also disappeared from the lying mouth Twyford.
Twyford has told that many lies about housing that he now needs to start to putting his statements on paper and countersigned by Robertson or Ardern.
No wonder rich immigrants and property speculaters are rubbing their hands, their good times will continue;
Hurrah for Phil Twyford they are shouting.

peteswriteplace said...

Must link this to my blog, Prebble was and still is just a motormouth. His speech impediment must have made it difficult in court. I actually liked Roger Douglas as a person, but couldn't stand Pebbles.

Nick J said...

Ultimately Prebble is a liar, he knows it, we know it. More fool any of us for giving him and his associates credence. He stands as a stark warning; as an ideologue he believes, truly believes he is right. What harm then in selling the message by presenting a falsehood? It's only a little step from that rationale to accepting collateral damage and broken eggs as a cost.

Kat said...

Clever like his book "Ive been thinking".....most likely the truest oxymoron ever.

jh said...

That's only one of the many myths about Auckland. Others include: "No one would want to go back to the Auckland of thirty years ago"; it's the powerhouse of the NZ economy; the benefits of diversity outweigh the downside; "most liveable city" etc

tony said...

"It's not bloody good! its an outright lie and you give him credit for the lie ..

sumsuch said...

But his kids are fine.

greywarbler said...

I remember that a consignment of flour for a bakery went missing for some time. The story goes that it was found on a side-track and no-one had bothered to look for it, or if someone knew, had reported it.

This sort of thing could happen in a system that had been disrupted, staff minimised, and lines of management cut. The whisky one might have happened in a time when some unions had a sense of grievance and felt that they were entitled to more, or some workers knew that they could get away with it, perhaps with a Robin Hood feeling of striking against the wealthy!

When people are comparatively well off, they sometimes fail to recognise it and not continue to do a good job honestly. Some don't respond to trust well, behaving dishonestly if they are not being monitored. There was supposed to be a scam carried out by waterfront workers in an Australian port city. Some workers would clock on and go away to their own affairs, return and clock off. When unions are closed and it becomes like a secret society, almost Masonic, then corruption can breed as no-one can whistleblow on any other member.

Andrew Nichols said...

Never mind the disappearing dozer. There ois one marvellous story that was true. When there was sucha thing as a Hokianga county Council with HQ based in Rawene. It had a grader to maintain the gravel roads which were the majority until the 80s. Anayway, it seemed that anyone could ring up and borrow this thing and it didn't always get back to the depot that often. By the time of the 89 amalgamation into the FNDC it had disappeared altogether.

Wrt Prebble. a truly nasty specimen. The best cartoon I ever saw dates from about 86 in the Listener by the genius Trace Hodgson. It went like this

An elderly woman sitting with her cat switches on the telly. "Tibbles I wander what's on Telly" The face of Prebble fills the screen. "Ooh it's that nasty man who closed the post office" She changes channel....The same angy visage remains ...changes again with the same result.... Then from the TV. "Leave the remote alone you ugly old bag!"

jh said...

ICT would have made the dozer issue much less likely today?

Anonymous said...

Dumb shit happens everwhere. A newspaper I worked for lost an expensive and quite large photocopier one day. After much searching and blaming it transpired that it was in Oamaru, more than a few kms away. How did it get there? Someone had left an envelope on it that needed to be picked up by a courier. The envelope had a notice on it for the courier : Deliver to Oamaru office. The courier delivered everything that sat under the note to Oamaru. This would have involved quite a lot of activity. An elevator was used and more than one person would have been needed. It was moved from a busy office. None of the actors in this tale were government employees.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Private enterprise is pretty much as bad. When I think if some of the things that used to disappear from various factories I worked in. I managed to get 90% of my motorbike chromed at one stage, and none of the management had their heads far enough out of their backsides to figure out what was going on. One guy had a job welding wheels. He had a quota. Whoever had set the quota had set it so low that the bugger could finish his work in two hours. For years he'd sit around and pretend to work. And one day he got too arrogant and they discovered that he was never in his room. So he was fired and the next guy did about 10 times as much work in the same time. And while you can't necessarily let the bloke escape any blame, no one in management had ever done any of the jobs on the factory floor, and no one had a clue whether people were working hard or not.
So maybe instead of importing IT people or farmworkers we should import some managers who know what they're doing? Many of them would be prepared to work for less than the idiots that seem to be in charge of various places such as Fonterra anyway.

greywarbler said...

Or better, have workers go through the system gaining experience and seniority and getting management training. Then you get everything historical knowledge and a deep understanding of the business and I guess, loyalty. One would hope anyway, and the business might not have to pay a huge salary, so that the money tree didn't get so top-heavy as now. If the manager got offered more to move elsewhere, then it might be necessary to pay more. But the commercial sensitivity of a knowledgable guy/woman, could that harm a business? Would getting someone from overseas cut out the 2-degrees of separation that our small country has, not like the rest of the world measure of about 6-degrees?

I know of a case, micro business, where someone left who had done the ordering so he knew just who to buy from, how much, quantities etc and that gave a good start when he set up in opposition.

And if a firm had been skirting the law, or developing new tech which they wanted to capture the market with, they couldn't afford to lose the guy at the top. There is a moral hazard here.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Grey. Good idea. But when you look at wages/salaries it's interesting that the top people always have theirs compared to the top people in the US. And those of us at the bottom have hours compared to some poor bastard in China. So they need more money, and we should be grateful. But it seems to me that there are places where CEOs don't get 150+ times what the average worker on the stop floor gets. I haven't got time to search it out, but I have a vague memory of Japan being one and Germany being the other. The two most successful economies of the 20th century on the whole. So I say if they want to go overseas, make sure they're on gardening leave for a couple of years, and promote some young bloke who is hungry for it. As long as you have some older and more experienced people around who have the institutional knowledge.
Funny, that arse Hooton was doing one of his usual rants on national radio the other day and he said that young enthusiastic teacher should be paid more than older ones, with the implication of course the older ones are useless. Funny how that is only ever applied to teachers, never doctors or lawyers. There is institutional knowledge and education as well as everything else. And we should cherish it. (The older I got the more I have come to believe in this. :) ) To me the implication is that older teachers have been hammered into the ground by being forced to do too much teaching, as well as helping younger teachers get established. But that's conservatives. Nasty prescriptions for everyone but themselves.

Slugger said...

Didn't Prebble repeat the story that a tractor that was destined for Te Puke ended up in Temuka?

Implying that if all the hopeless railway workers were sacked, things would be so much more efficient in private hands.