OPINION: When I was asked to write this column, I was told I could indulge the grumpy old man lurking at my core.
Grumpy old men can, I suppose, be amusing in small doses and a thousand words a week is a relatively small dose.
However, I have reservations about accepting the title, one being the word old. "Old" is clearly the most ageist word there is. Before someone suggests the term "chronologically challenged", let me reject that as well.
I also have misgivings about the term "grumpy". I do not regard myself as being grumpy, but I would admit to being sometimes angry about things that are beyond the normal range of personal slights and reversals that most often make people angry.
In fact, rather than being a grumpy old man, I think of myself as being an angry young man who has been around a long time.
When I was in my late teens, there were many angry young people protesting things such as our involvement in the Vietnam War, entertaining the rugby-playing representatives of South African apartheid, and the French habit of blowing up Pacific atolls with nuclear bombs.
I recently served two years as a country publican and I noticed there were still as many angry young men around as there have ever been. However, the anger seemed to be directed principally toward other young men and their girlfriends. The violent arguments I had to deal with in the pub were more often because Raelene said Toby's girlfriend, Tracey, was fat, so Toby punched out her boyfriend, Jackson. I was also surprised at the propensity for fights to end with the victor laying into the prone loser with their boots, while the bystanders stood around cheering.
I remember very few fights when I went to the pub as a young man and none where those standing around did not drag the fighters off one another. Times have changed.
Not that this makes me particularly angry. I am a little sad that Team Youth has nothing better to get angry about, but I take comfort from the fact many will be so lardy from the fatty fast foods they eat that, by the time they hit their mid-20s, they will no longer constitute a menace, except in the event they accidentally fall on someone.
The things that make me angry have not changed a great deal since I was an angry young man. The very mention of the name Bill Birch, for example, still causes my skin to crawl with loathing and what is left of my hackles to rise.
I hold Bill Birch - the greyest of grey men and chief henchman to that repellent old scoundrel Robert Muldoon - responsible for a great deal that remains wrong with our poor little country. Birch and Muldoon could not come up with a better slogan with which to fight an election than Think Big, a dumb over-reaction to the oil shocks of the time that resulted in the construction of a number of enormous, equally dumb projects that started the country down the road to chronic indebtedness.
Prior to these projects in the mid-70s, New Zealand was virtually free of overseas debt, but afterwards it was all downhill.
It is true the sale of national assets at bargain-basement prices along with deregulation and privatisation during the '80s almost wiped out government debt, but private debt had taken its place, rising to the point we now owe an all-time record 90 per cent of GDP. We are now borrowing to pay the interest on previous borrowings.
When gas was discovered at Mui, we seemed to have been given a golden key to generations of prosperity. We were almost debt-free and the country's biggest import bill was for oil for domestic consumption. Here was a fuel that could be delivered to all the cities of the North Island through a pipe and could be pumped into our cars' gas tanks after just a simple scrubbing. It could be delivered to the South Island in ships designed to carry gas. Here was a fuel so clean-burning it virtually eliminated exhaust toxins.
The most expensive part of the process was buying the land to run the pipelines. Changing a car to run on CNG when it was produced cost the modest amount of $50, while changing over the existing fleet could be achieved for a few hundred dollars per car.
That's when Birch and Muldoon messed everything up. They first decided to burn the gas to make electricity and signed a take-or-pay deal with Shell-BP-Todd to develop the field. When it then became clear we did not need all the gas produced to make electricity, but were locked into paying for it anyway, the gruesome twosome decided to build two petrochemical plants in Taranaki at a real cost greater than the cost of fighting World War II. Instead of eliminating the need for imported oil by using our vast reserves of gas to run our cars, we were now going to turn it into petrol and export it, thereby paying for the imported oil on which we remained reliant.
One small glitch in the plan was that 60 per cent of the energy was wasted - burned off in a big flare at the top of a massive cooling tower at Motonui. Another was that the fuel thus produced was only marginally profitable. By the 1980s, the plant was losing money and it changed to methanol production, again for export. By the mid 2000s, it had been squandered and we were well down the road to ruinous debt.
When I reflect that if it wasn't for these two we could all be driving American V8s, spitting mostly water out the back end, as we tool around our debt-free country for years to come, I still get angry. Grumpy doesn't even begin to cover it.
Tim Hanna is a Lumsden-based author.
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