One of precious few outdoor entertainments available during the lockdown has been the sight of empty buses. Everybody who took a daily walk will have noticed them.
We were told they'd be operating on reduced schedules but every time I went out for an hour or so, at different times of day, I was passed by four or five and as many coming the other way. Over 33 days of level 4 I must have seen 300 buses pass through my corner of Auckland and the number of passengers I saw was precisely three. What was going on?
The mystery is not that buses were empty but that anyone in authority could have expected otherwise. At level 4 nobody was allowed to use them unless they were essential workers or going to a doctor or supermarket. But there was little other traffic on the roads. If you needed to travel for any of those reasons you'd use a car.
Keeping buses running didn't even make sense in public health terms. Buses and train carriages are obvious viral incubators. If they were in the private sector they'd be banned in a pandemic. Cars are the perfect bubble, the Government should have been telling people that if they need transport they should use a car.
Now under level 3 there's more traffic but it's flowing easily and all the buses I've seen this week were still empty, as you'd expect. So why are they running?
Early on I went to the blog of a well-informed public transport enthusiast seeking an answer and found there a posting of praise for innovations adopted for the lockdown: no more cash-handling, entry/exit by the rear door, passengers instructed to tag on and off just to record their ride since no fare was being charged.
But there were no passengers. It brought to mind the episode of Britain's Yes, Minister when Sir Humphrey enthused about how well hospitals could function with no patients.
In the first days of the lockdown, television news interviewed an official standing in a deserted Queen St who reported air pollution there had practically disappeared, which was not nearly as surprising as the evidence air monitoring was considered an essential industry at a time like that.
These things would have been more entertaining were it not for some of the crystal ball-gazing going on. It was clear not everybody regarded the pandemic as an unmitigated disaster. For those who think they know people's best interests better than people do, 2020 suddenly presented an unexpected and exciting opportunity. This was to be Year Zero for reordering the way we live.
It wasn't just Greens indulging their post-carbon plans, the universal basic income was getting another run, Winston Peters wanted to turn the country back into a sheltered workshop, even Social Credit was revived, with its monetary creation theory that would put New Zealand on course to become Zimbabwe or Venezuela.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson was dusting off Labour's "Future of Work" study he'd led in Opposition. He outlined his idea of economic reconstruction in a speech to business. It would start by asking, "What shape do we want New Zealand to be in, how do we make sure we don't repeat the mistakes we might have made, get the focus on to looking at the clean energy needs, the housing, new industries we want to be going into."
If that is the thrust of the Budget he will deliver next Thursday, all those people who have just lost their jobs in tourism and related industries are going to be waiting a long time for new ones. The training they will be offered is likely to be in lecture rooms and limited by the Labour Party's social objectives.
But as things gradually return to normal it feels like a sense of realism is coming back and it seems more likely the Government will try to resuscitate the very good economy we had until eight weeks ago. It was heartening to hear Jacinda Ardern warn on Monday that despite the billions being spent to sustain business and jobs, the Budget would not be fiscally rash.
Robertson has expressed appreciation for the work of previous finance ministers who gave the low public debt and balanced budgets that have made a $50 billion stimulus possible without much risk to the currency and our livings standard.
So though the Government has been fully funding those empty buses (with revenue from petrol tax) I'm hoping the buses were not what they appeared to be – a big bold statement that this Government considers some things to be a public good regardless of whether they're wanted, needed or used.
A consumer-led economy has been stifled not killed. A good Budget will help all desired services get back to life, not a favoured few.