Chest pains

In Newsletter Editorial6 MinutesBy Dave McCoidJune 27, 2024

I remember my father recalling a discussion with his local GP decades ago. It occurred in rural New Zealand in the 1970s, when communities were small and close-knit – party lines, if you get my drift.

There for a check-up, Dad was lamenting the passing of a local farmer who had dropped dead from a heart attack, at which point Dr Bob – as the community affectionately called him – glanced over the top of his glasses with a somewhat cautionary depth to his stare.

“No one drops dead from a heart attack, Dick. Everyone gets a couple of warnings. It’s whether they choose to ignore them or not that determines if we get the chance to treat them, or they ‘drop dead’ as it were.”

It’s a story I’d like to tell Prime Minister Chris Luxon regarding the Cook Strait ferry situation. We’ve had several warnings – chest pains you might say – indicating something truly horrible might lurk just around the corner. Amid any number of breakdowns and berth ‘clunks’, there have been the three big ones: January  2023, Kaitaki lost power and drifted a mile from course in 3m swells off Wellington’s south coast; February 2023, the Aratere breaks down approaching Tory Channel on its way to Picton; and then last Friday night, in a demonstration of publicly visible ignominy, the Aratere departed Picton, lost steering and grounded a mere 3km into its journey. It sat forlornly for world media to scoff at, almost a shrine to our inability to remove suffocating self-imposed complexity from mission-critical decisions that should not be difficult.

Of course, the latest incident happened when the Kaiarahi was mid-way through maintenance and due for completion on 6 July, so at the time of writing, we’re down to one operating Interislander ferry. That holds little interest for me this time; the situation is now well beyond maintaining the efficiencies of modern excess. As a nation, we’ve waived the right to worry about such things. It’s now about the lives of everyone who comes into contact with these vessels.

A cause of major concern after the events of 2023 was the lack of heavy sea salvage capability for a stricken Cook Strait ferry. Has anything been done to resolve even this under the selectively applied definition of ‘every practicable step’? Or, because there’s a government aspect to this issue, has this requirement been conveniently placed in the bottom draw?

Where do business PCBUs, who commit staff to these vessels daily, stand in the eyes of WorkSafe? The ferries are workplaces with proven records of unreliability, unable to be rescued when compromised in heavy seas. Or, again, does the governmental cloak protect all in this instance?

The roulette wheels on these ageing death traps are going to stop the marble in the wrong slot at some point. Had the Aratere been exiting Tory Channel on an outgoing tide when the steering failed, we might have been dealing with another orchestrated litany of lies.

In the wake of Friday’s incident, Luxon said an announcement was due on the ferry situation shortly. That, Prime Minister, is seven months too late. Such an announcement was required at the same press conference where iReX was binned. Regarding need, the iReX vessels were overdue then, so your people had any amount of time to formulate an alternative. To give the impression this is something ‘dropped in your lap’ undermines your perceived comprehension of issues facing the country generally and, therefore, your capability to address them.

The $1.4 bn iReX required for completion was not another Robertson money dump – it was an investment in the country’s economic capability over the next half century, not to mention the long-term safety of its citizens. Without those boats, New Zealand is two countries, keeping iReX on course was a no brainer for many. The specification of the new ferries might not have been perfect in everyone’s eyes, but they would have been new, infinitely better than what we have today, and they would have been safe.

Luxon’s Prime Ministerial legacy may not be one of starting to dig the nation out of a US$100 billion debt hole, it might well be 600 bodies floating in Cook Strait, and a missing ferry.

All the best

Dave McCoid
Editorial Director