Chris Trotter: Bring back the Ministry of Works

Ministry of Works bulldozers ripping away part of the hillside on bends between Claverley and Hundalee in 1982 so a more ...
Fairfax Media NZ

Ministry of Works bulldozers ripping away part of the hillside on bends between Claverley and Hundalee in 1982 so a more gentle curving bend could be built.

OPINION: 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.

Machinery from the Ministry of Works depot at Cass is used to clear snow from Highway 73 at the foot of Porters Pass in ...
Fairfax Media NZ

Machinery from the Ministry of Works depot at Cass is used to clear snow from Highway 73 at the foot of Porters Pass in July 1984.

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.

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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.

 - Stuff

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