Tuesday 22 November 2016

MoW 2.0 - Shaking-Up Our Thinking.

Architects Of The Public Good: Government architects, along with engineers, scientists, tradespeople and thousands of other workers, were employed by the Ministry of Works - the state-owned planning and construction agency that built so much of New Zealand's infrastructure. In a country plagued by earthquakes and facing the consequences of global warming, isn't it time for MoW 2.0?
ONCE AGAIN, New Zealanders are confronted with the raw and unconquerable power of the tectonic forces beneath their feet. Although the rebuilding of Christchurch remains a real and present priority; the nation’s eyes have been drawn inevitably to the earthquake-ravaged landscape of the Kaikoura Coast.
The civil-engineering challenges of this latest disaster are daunting. Reconstructing an urban landscape is one thing. But shifting whole mountainsides of rock and clay? That is something else again! Restoring State Highway One and the coastal railway linking Christchurch with Picton will be the work not of weeks, or even months, but years.
Our political leaders, prompted by the conventional wisdom of the past thirty years, will undoubtedly look to the private sector for salvation. As the initial damage surveys are completed, civil servants will be tasked with drawing up job specifications and seeking expressions of interest from domestic and foreign construction firms. Every bid received will have been carefully calculated to deliver a healthy financial return to the tenderer’s shareholders – not New Zealand’s citizens.
Is this truly the most sensible way to proceed? Wouldn’t New Zealand’s long-term interests be better served by the creation of a large, permanent and state-owned construction organisation? The arguments in favour of establishing a twenty-first century version of the twentieth century’s Ministry of Works are compelling.
The first and most obvious advantage of having a large, permanent and state-owned construction force is the ease of its rapid mobilisation. Organised along the lines of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (one of the largest publicly-owned engineering, design, and construction management agencies in the world) this new Ministry of Works – let’s call it MoW 2.0 – would be able to swing into action at a moment’s notice.
In much the same way as the NZ Defence Force was able to send the HMNZS Canterbury and a convoy of army trucks to the aid of Kaikoura, the MoW 2.0 would be able to move engineers, construction workers and heavy earth-moving machinery to where they were most needed.
Such a force would not only be available to deal with the earthquakes to which New Zealand is so prone, but also to remediate the damage caused by the extreme weather events that are already a disturbing feature of global warming. Violent storms, massive floods, inundating tides and eroding shorelines will become the “new normal” as the planet heats up. MoW 2.0 would take on the lion’s share of repairing the nation’s beleaguered infrastructure and play a leading role in the design and construction of new climate-change protection schemes.
MoW 2.0 could also play an important role in managing the New Zealand labour market. As a major employer of unskilled and semi-skilled workers it would soak up a large number of citizens who would otherwise be unemployed. Remedial education and on-the-job training would be an important part of MoW 2.0’s remit and would constitute an ongoing contribution to the public good.
Within just a few years, MoW 2.0 would be passing out highly-trained and experienced engineers, architects, scientists and tradespeople to take up new positions in the private sector. A massive public subsidy? Yes. But no different from the huge public subsidisation of the medical profession which we accept quite happily every time we are treated by a young doctor working in our local public hospital.
Not all of those inducted into MoW 2.0 would move out into the private sector, however. Many would make the defence, restoration and construction of New Zealand’s public infrastructure their life-long career. In time, MoW 2.0 would build up a formidable body of highly-qualified and highly-creative professionals, dedicated not only to the resolution of present problems, but also to the anticipation of new ones.
An historical precedent for this is clearly discernible in the original Ministry of Works, whose planners, in the final years of the First Labour Government, produced a comprehensive blueprint for the growth and development of Auckland. This extraordinary plan anticipated practically all of the problems which are currently taxing the Auckland Council. Everything: from urban intensification to light-rail connectivity; comprehensive public amenities to pedestrian precincts and cycleways; was foreseen and provided for as long ago as 1946!
And this is, arguably, the most compelling reason of all for establishing a large, permanent and state-owned construction organisation. Unconstrained by the private sector’s need to be constantly in search of better contracts and bigger profits, it would be able to construct a “big picture’ of New Zealand’s vulnerabilities and needs.
Against the blind, overwhelmingly destructive forces of nature, MoW 2.0 would oppose the imagination and foresight of intelligent human-beings. In sharp contrast to the short-termism of free-market capitalism, it would look over the horizon to the outlines of a more appropriately resourced and better prepared New Zealand.
A country awaiting only the earthquake of progressive political change.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 November 2016.


Anthon said...

An excellent proposal Chris. It's great to see constructive, forward thinking suggestions being put out there for analysis and discussion. I hope many within Labour, the Greens and NZ First take this idea seriously. I would wish for the current government to do the same, but as Pdogge says, it wont happen under them...

greywarbler said...

It's important for thinkers to put forward suggestions like yours Chris which are acted on or we get left with the tricksters in finance playing with the symbolic wealth as drawn by Peattie and Taylor in Alex at The Telegraph.

Unknown said...

isnt there a degree of Soviet planning in this? Chris are you sure that there will be hundreds/thousands of workers who will be happy to relocate for an undetermined amount of time to do work at the Ministers direction? Or are you happy with that degree of Government control over people's lifes? Would you be happy to be told you had to move to Kaikoura to repair roads and be away from your family ?

Froghop said...

Many of the workers that worked on the Clyde Dam in the 70's / 80's completed apprenticeships & other quals through the MoW.

Many people will tell you they had the time of their life.

Patricia said...

Yes, yes and yes. Funny isn't it that whenever one talks of planning the adjective "soviet" is used in conjunction with it. As if planning is a dirty word. I often think if the current form of government had been in power from when New Zealand was formed, and it could have been for free trade capitalism was all the fashion, we would be a third world country today. New Zealand had socialist planning from its inception but it was socialist planning combined with capitalism. Oh for more of it today.

pat said...

@ Richard swan
are you serious?.....what is the difference between your private employer requiring your service in Kaikoura and a gov dept?? either way you have the option, do the job or find an alternative. I don't recall public service employment being bonded labour on pain of death.

A back to the future proposal that has merit, particularly if it was part of a total package that combines elements of the Future of work, education, climate change and possibly UBI policies....also would need to address some of the politicisation of the public service issues as amply demonstrated by the misuse of both EQC and MBIE re the response to the 2010 /2011 quakes....and has the potential to recreate some the regional development that is desperately needed if done well.

Jack Scrivano said...

I think there is merit in your idea, Chris. The key to success (aside from adequate funding) would be ensuring that it has a core of really top-notch engineers and project managers, and the best available equipment. We don't want to end up with another KiwiRail.

greywarbler said...

What a laugh. Let's unpeel the banana and dispose of the skin properly so no-one takes a bruising slide on it. Wouldn't want it to be someone's swansong.
isnt there a degree of Soviet planning in this?
Chris are you sure that there will be hundreds/thousands of workers who will be happy to relocate for an undetermined amount of time to do work at the Ministers direction?
Or are you happy with that degree of Government control over people's lifes? Would you be happy to be told you had to move to Kaikoura to repair roads and be away from your family ?

1 Come out of your sentry box and challenge - is there any soviet-style person here? For goodness sake leave your 20th century baggage at home and look at now, while keeping the past in view.

2 I am sure that hundreds even thousands of workers would be keen to shift and take up work at reasonable pay if they were guaranteed employment and services such as schools, medical, for a few years. They won't have to worry about leaving homes as they either haven't managed home ownership, or can leave it rented while they are away. They will say, yay, we have nothing to lose and lots to gain.

National when they were conducting their move to market rentals back in the 90s were prepared to move people out of their state homes from one town to another, unknown town, if there was a unit with less bedrooms, in the name of cold, stalinist efficiency.

3 Are we happy with government control over people's lives? As it is at present you mean?

Any government has huge influence over people's lives you twit. It is just egregious when government manufactures a low wage environment which then leads on to poorer living conditions. These government makes worse by its urgent need of injections of cash from foreign investors to give the impression that it is running an economy that the world wants to invest in. Except that the world wants to buy up our established infrastructure and alienate the advantages or profits from the people.

This has caused immense inflation which is compressed into a small sector of the economy, and corralled there, but which leaks out to affect the rest without being properly measured in our carefully tailored inflation statistics.

And the National Party has been offering money to people to move from Auckland without any promises for more stable employment, housing or a better future, so they have just been trying the same, to manipulate and move people, but with the usual minimal budget to support the scheme and the people involved.

4 It doesn't sound as if you would join a group of community-minded supportive NZs who went to Kaikoura to help as a project of good will.
But something like this did happen in Christchurch with the Student Army I think they called themselves. People would be glad to go and work for a decent wage, with transport and accommodation provided, it would be like a working holiday. In mid-20th century NZ when most people believed in helping each other as committed citizens in the country, it would have been considered appropriate.

Now there are so many idle wealthy who have adopted a snobbish attitude to those who are strugglers, worthy of the upper class in Britain or India. Attitudes have changed, we have an effete class who deign to do anything physical that would get their hands dirty, much less lift a hand to help those in need.

Nick J said...

The key factor Chris has identified is a ready capability. The market does not anticipate seismic events. Nor does market economics readily respond without distorting the rest of the construction market and probably shortening the capital payback window to inflate the price. Ultimately private enterprise cannot respond without government funding and gaurantees which raises the question of risk and reward. Why should the public take the risk and privatise the reward?

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Does anyone here have the faintest idea how much it would cost to maintain this utopian ready action force? It would have stood around for nine of the last ten years, chewing up billions of dollars doing nothing. (Just like good old NZ Rail used to do)

In point of fact, the private sector is well capable of anticipating events like this. By the time the gummint figures out what can be done v what it wants to be done, the private sector will be ready to go. Most of its muscle will be bought in form Australia and the US because that's where it is.

jh said...

I like the way the MOW built Twizel + the dams and canals.

AB said...

But but - nobody will get rich from MOW 2.0. No shareholder will get unearned income. Nobody will siphon taxpayer money into private hands through monopoly overcharging, scams and corruption. Private sector inefficiency and waste will not be given a chance to extend deadlines endlessly and gouge more money. Private sector greed and corner-cutting will not deliver shonky, crappily built rubbish that will leak, fall down or blow up.

It can't happen Chris - it's just not mainstream economics.

Kat said...

Great post Chris, I have been advocating the return of the MOW for years and years and years. The 'private sector' lobbyists will of course heap scorn. Then there are the blind ideology driven parrots squawking the tired old mantra that govt should not be involved in anything. The benefit of a MOW in training and ultimately providing an ongoing skill base to the private sector escapes them.

pat said...

"In point of fact, the private sector is well capable of anticipating events like this. By the time the gummint figures out what can be done v what it wants to be done, the private sector will be ready to go. Most of its muscle will be bought in form Australia and the US because that's where it is.'

is this the same private sector that has "rebuilt' Christchurch, sometimes 2 or 3 times and at greatly inflated rates...not too mention the materials of dubious quality?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

it's the blue the same private sector that built the Wainuiomata Hill Road, which started to break up six months later.

Jens Meder said...

Nick J - in the case of earthquakes and apart from what has bee insured - what else is possible than that the public pays for the private rewards of workers to repair the damage - whichever way you look at it, with or without a Ministry of Works ?

jh said...

Richard Swan said...
isnt there a degree of Soviet planning in this? Chris are you sure that there will be hundreds/thousands of workers who will be happy to relocate for an undetermined amount of time to do work at the Ministers direction?
I see the recruiters are out already seeking overseas workers for a Kaikoura rebuild. Someone on RNZ said we haven't trained enough people due to G7 when housing construction fell behind (nothing to do with an active immigration program).
This work should be New Zealanders work. Our politicians are Sicko's.

Victor said...

A further task of significance might be to redesign and rebuild the leaky homes that have blighted the lives of far too many New Zealanders, through no fault of their own.

They would thus be able to on-sell and start living again, instead of just surviving.

Alternatively, MOW2 could purchase the properties at CV and then sell them on at a small profit. Or it could turn them into state-owned rental properties.

Which ever path you go down, you would be increasing the percentage of weather-tight houses, with commensurate advantages to the health and welfare of the citizenry.

Currently, it's difficult to borrow to repair a leaky home, unless you already have a large mortgage. Prudent and responsible home owners are thus left stranded, whilst multi-home (and multi-mortgage) owners are at an advantage.

This is an area where the market has simply failed and post facto attempts at regulation have just made matters worse by adding vastly inflated inspection costs to the burden on would-be repairers. Only massive non-market intervention can clear up the mess.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...


It's the same private sector which built most of Auckland, Melbourne, Sydney and New York.

Grant said...

@Jens Meder " in the case of earthquakes and apart from what has bee insured - what else is possible than that the public pays for the private rewards of workers to repair the damage - whichever way you look at it, with or without a Ministry of Works ?"

Would you care to recast that 'sentence' into meaningful prose?

Peter said...

What a brilliant back to the future idea Chris. I well remember working in the Public Service and waking up one morning to hear that the MOW no longer existed. The biggest Gvt Dept that provided services for other gvt departments disappeared overnight. Unbelievable. And then of course the neoliberal experiment continues and now we are where we are today. A whole brainwashed generation who mostly don't know what the gvt used to do in those days. But once broken up, some things can be hard to fix. The current gvt orthodoxy followed by the centre right and left is unlikely to pursue this. It will interesting who gets to undertake Trumps proposed infrastructure projects. Although they have the US Army Core of Engineers, a lot of work will go private enterprise who will bid the lowest and consequently provide lowest quality.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

“But the plan he offered is a scam that gives massive tax breaks to large companies and billionaires on Wall Street who are already doing phenomenally well. Trump would allow corporations that have stashed their profits overseas to pay just a fraction of what the companies owe in federal taxes. And then he would allow the companies to ‘invest’ in infrastructure projects in exchange for even more tax breaks. Trump’s plan is corporate welfare coming and going.”

Bernie Sanders

manfred said...

If it weren't for the immigrants stealing our jobs and doing weird things, we would be able to begin the discussion on a private wealth creation project in which all citizens take part and everything would be totally sweet.

An 'existential hack' if you will.

JH Meder.

Jens Meder said...

grant - for survival, is not all work done for at least a living wage and a survival margin of profitability for private, personal rewards ?

The question is - are private rewards to the majority (of the public) through the overhead cost of a MOW2 in control of a limited (fully employed ?) work force bigger (and more desirable) -

than the private rewards to the majority through just building up some capital reserves to cope at least to some extent with extraordinary emergencies without the permanent overhead costs of maintaining a MOW2 with work force reserves ?

A fair question raised by Chris, and is it not all in the interests of maintaining better and more widespread private rewards such as prosperity, security and welfare when faced with extraordinary emergencies ?

David Stone said...

Hi Chris

Reading your post and the comments, and reflecting back over previous related discussion, it strikes me that your commentators fall into two broad categories . One kind of contributor to the discussion is bogged down in their view of the world by a boring mundane psychological hangup requiring them to see and understand a "cause and effect "in things: Being common people, they can't move on from common sense.

The other kind are not so fettered , they can have "beliefs" like religious beliefs , that can't be politely disagreed with; that don't require reasoned argument to be upheld. And rather than address the tedious commoners construction they can be supported with lovely cliche^s like "there is no alternative" and "this is how the modern economy works" , And boring practical ideas can easily be dismissed as being "so last century " or "going back to fortress New Zealand".

" Belief" is odd in it's common use in this context, because when it is used as a verb we think of what we have come to believe as a result of experience and learning, and of reason; the result of a body of evidence sufficient to be convinced of, but a "belief" as a noun as it is applied to religion or macroeconomics, doesn't seem to need the support of reason or logic, and it is offensive to argue that a "belief" should be so constrained. Ideologies seem to be much sexier than ideas.

I think it would be good if the free thinking ideologues could be allowed to live in one world, and the boring stick-in-the-mud commoners could live in another.

Cheers David J S

pat said...


lol...is that supposed to be a recommendation?

Nick J said...

I think what Jens is saying is "In the case of damage from natural disasters, aside from what has been insured, the government (aka the taxpayer) pays for the work to be done. The workers get private reward from this regardless of who they work for".
I think what Jens is implying (and I could be wrong) is that workers benefit as well as private contractors. So lets do a little deconstruct.

Workers will get paid to do the work either way, it has to be done and that is their reward. Under a private contractor regime the contractor will apply a profit to the work done which adds to the bill. If the state is the employer that is not the case, it is less expensive for the taxpayer.

Now lets apply that to the cost of capital equipment. If a private body has to gear up they will need to buy equipment. Capital equipment only earns money when employed and wont be left idle, it will be then resold if there is a market for it. In all likelihood the private contractor will have to inflate the price of the contract to allow for the risk of being left holding unsold capacity. So we the taxpayer effectively guarantee the private contractor against risk. In the case of the state the contract does not need to be inflated to cover risk if the intention is to retain capacity for future emergencies. They too could hedge their bets and sell off capacity.

The final cost that a government capability would not pay is the most obvious. There are few private companies in NZ who are large enough to respond. Consequently those who do are an "elite" club that when bidding will act in a cartel way. They will be aware of who has what work and capacity which will drive the contracts to be divided NOT in an open market but in a market that can set price dependent upon being "available". This will drive up the contract prices. I have seen it so often in private enterprise, it is smart business practice and not illegal. The obvious way to counter this and to save tax money is to have government owned capacity with known cost structures. The private sector would then only be in a position to bid for "surplus" work and the government body could ensure that the price reflected reality.

Grant said...

Jens. I'm sorry I asked.

wardeez said...

How do you make contact with Chris? All I want to do (as a professional engineer) is share a paper of mine with him related to this blog that he might be interested in.


wardeez said...

I would like to share with Chris a paper on this subject but am not sure how to send it to him.


Victor said...

Nick J

Well put.

Guerilla Surgeon said...


For some reason you now seem to be able to get this book for free. Perhaps because it was written in 1951. But it was way ahead of its time, written by an autodidact if my memory serves me correctly, and is very good on the nature of ideology and why people cannot be shifted from idiotic ideology and belief.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Wardeez.

Easy. Just send me another comment (which will not be published) containing your e-mail address, and I'll be in touch.

David Stone said...

Thanks for that reference G S . The more cogent since the advent of the suicide bomber and ISIS, everyone should have a read.
Cheers D J S

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You're welcome David. Here is a slightly shorter read on a similar subject.

Jens Meder said...

Thanks, Nick J - what you say is reasonable and credible, that the long term overhead cost of maintaining a MOW2 may be at a lower cost more efficient in dealing with emergencies than what private enterprise alone can - or is prepared - to deliver.