Infrastructure announcements will not save New Zealand’s economy

Friday, May 22, 2020

The penny is starting to drop that New Zealand is in a precarious economic position we may not recover from for decades. There’s a big difference between saying building infrastructure will contribute to New Zealand’s economic recovery from Covid-19, and the reality of the gap between announcement and creation of paying jobs.

I’ve been quite vocal about my concerns around Transmission Gully. If the government can’t even complete the one big roading infrastructure project on the books, how can we have confidence they can get others running and completed?

Many share my concerns, and this week New Zealand’s largest construction company, Fletcher Building, announced it would be slashing about 1000 jobs in New Zealand as it moves to reduce staffing by 10 percent.

It has been reported that Fletcher Building had more than 400 operating sites closed during New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown. It said it recorded zero revenue in most of its New Zealand operations during the lockdown. In Australia however, where there has not been a total lockdown, revenue ran at about 90 percent of its prior expectations.

Our biggest construction company doesn’t have much confidence in the road ahead, and the expected market downturn means it has to reduce its workforce, losing valuable skilled workers. They are not alone. We are seeing 1000 people a day join the unemployment queue. The cost to this country will only play out over time, but we can expect our young people won’t want to stick around and pay the bills being racked up now and we will be looking at another brain-drain.

The government has tagged about $15 billion for infrastructure, but announcements do not jobs make. There’s a big gap between something being deemed ‘shovel ready’ and, well, the shovels actually going into the ground with workers attached to them.

Even the Amalgamated Workers Union national secretary Maurice Davis is calling for a faster start on infrastructure projects to offset job losses in the construction sector. He suggests the government look at fast-tracking projects they deferred when they came to power.

In a last-ditch attempt to get some business nous into the economic recovery, the Prime Minister’s Business Council has told her that Australia is “co-optimising” the economic consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak better than New Zealand. Chair Fraser Whineray sent a blunt letter holding up Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s high-powered National Covid-19 Coordination Commission as exemplary.

The voice of business is not so well heard here in New Zealand. You can see that in suggestions for a four-day working week and an extra public holiday. These are further costs already crippled businesses simply won’t be able to bear. They’ve only just got back to work in many instances and now the government wants them to pay for more days off. This also shows the government’s complete lack of understanding of the fact that many businesses operate seven days and/or are coordinating with parts of their businesses in other time zones. The five-day, 9am-5pm work week is no longer a reality for many.

You can see the disregard for business in the policy – written by people with no business experience – and in Wellington where we now wander in a ghost town. Public servants are staying home instead of coming into the city to work and contributing to the retail and hospitality businesses that have conveniently been there for them for years.

If the government really cared about jobs, jobs, jobs, they would get their own workers back into Wellington’s offices, spending their considerable salaries.

The trouble we are in will not be cured with kindness. It won’t be fixed by well-meaning workshops. The meaningless daily press conferences and the hiding behind Covid-19 needs to stop. As Mr Whineray put it in his letter:

“To avoid the endemic problem with the public sector's misallocation of New Zealanders' resources held by the government in non-core activity and low productivity within the public sector we need a very strong business in involvement alongside central government.”

By Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum