Bruce Bisset: Profit over people the neoliberal fail

By BRUCE BISSET

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Seems to me the longer the failed neoliberal experiment continues, the more disconnected communities become from government and the greater the negative impact on ordinary citizens' lives, especially when ideology alone drives every decision.

The only group to benefit are subscribers to the "minimise and privatise" approach to governance that sees public assets become their private property - to their considerable fortune and everyone else's bitter loss.

Or, as in the case of the East Coast railway line, public assets being forced to perform to a strict "business case" regimen where profit is the only measure valued, and bugger the social or cultural or for that matter environmental impacts.

So it's no surprise official reaction so far to the independent review of the now-mothballed Gisborne line is dismissive even of the economic case that consultants BERL put together, which challenges KiwiRail's figures and suggests that with minor improvement the line could at least break even in the near future.

Consideration of other factors, including simply the desirability of retaining "alternative" infrastructure, is palpably missing from that reaction, as it was from KiwiRail's tunnel-vision decision.

Moreover, the region's mayors and business leaders are likely to get short shrift from the Minister of Transport Gerry Brownlee when (or if) they finally get to meet him to argue the case for reopening the line.

That they're being run ragged even to get that meeting shows how little concern government has for the issue.

And don't start me on the complete lack of either empathy or electoral integrity from our three East Coast Ministers (Foss, Tremain, and Parata); their complicit silence has been deafening.

That Chris Tremain has finally come out in support of the closure - citing (surprise!) purely economic grounds - may be seen in some quarters as some sort of moral feather, but is merely a reflection of how cold-eyed the money men are as they gaze upon the injuries inflicted on their immediate friends and neighbours.

But this is the neoliberal way. Everything has to measure up to an idealised "stand alone" scenario where profit is the only validated yardstick of success. If a prison or a school or a railway can't make a buck without intervention, it's perceived a failure and allowed to die or be hocked off to those with opportunity to make that buck for themselves.

As to why such entities should be required to make profits in the first place (rather than simply doing the job they're set up to do, for the public good) harks back to the policies of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman et al, the "fathers" of neoliberalism.

The primary tenet of that ideology says that if you remove the "impediments" (tax and regulation) from the rich they will invest more in productive industry; economic growth will accelerate and consequently everyone will benefit, rich and poor alike.

Naturally this vision was enthusiastically embraced by those with wealth, such that the global economy has been remodelled in the past 30-plus years to follow this prescription.

The rich have gone from fat to obese. The 100 richest people added $241 billion to their wealth last year and are now worth $1.9 trillion, while the massed poor are increasingly either unemployed or less-well paid while being taxed more yet provided with less in return from their "downsized" governments.

In short, the result of the neoliberal experiment is total failure. Unless, of course, you were rich already.

By way of contrast to the treatment viz the rail line, note the immediate praise-filled touting of another recent BERL report, produced for Venture Taranaki, in support of the oil and gas industry and the practice of fracking.

The essential difference? One supports the profit-by-any-means mentality; the other does not.

On that note and by way of correction: The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment has been quick to pull me up for stating last week that oil royalties were based on 5 per cent of net profit when they are in fact calculated on 5 per cent of gross production (or 20 per cent of profit, whichever is greater).

Nevertheless New Zealand's royalty regime is near the bottom of the global list in terms of return to government and (like our social statistics) unlikely to improve in rank, even when the money is mostly spent on motorways.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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