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A lethal lesson in de-regulation…

18 August 2011 1 comment

More here.

De-regulation and an open, unfettered economy was the big fashion in the late 1980s (“Rogernomics”) and 1990s (“Ruthenasia”). It was argued by neo-liberals; the wealthy; and by segments of wannabee-rich middle class, that de-regulation was the new paradigm that would create an efficient; highly productive; wealthy society.

We would become the “Ireland” of the South Pacific – and Ireland at the time was doing extremely well, economically.

So the National government of the day, led by Prime Minister Jim Bolger, and with Ruth Richardson as his Minister ofFinance, continued what a Labour cabal consisting of Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Peter Dunne, Michael Bassett, et al, had started: de-regulating the economy.

The new mantra was “De-regulation, good. Government regulation, bad”.

It was a childishly simplistic notion, and one that would cost us dearly in terms of vast sums of money; destroyed dreams; and lives lost.

The years passed. The 20th Century turned into the new 21st Century. The public became tired of National, and elected a new, Labour government, led by Helen Clark. Labour had a hard task of paying off a decade of accumulated debt and resolving deep social problems that were afflicting the country; growing poverty; high unemployment; increasing cases of poverty-related disease; lack of support for the country’s mentally ill;  a loss of state housing (National had sold off 13,000 state houses during it’s tenure); and other pressing matters.

There were also two silent time-bombs waiting in the shadows.

In the early 1990s, changes were made to the Building Act 1991/Building Regulations 1992  with several  subsequent amendments.

Effectively, these amendments de-regulated much of the industry, permitting untreated timber to be used where, previously, only treated varieties could be using for house construction. New materials could also be used that had not previously been common in residential building, including a newly fashionable “Meditteranean style”.

Similar de-regulatory events were to take place in Health & Safety, in 1992,  with regards to mining. In 1998 seven dedicated OSH mines inspectors were absorbed into OSH.  The disbanding of the mines inspectorate group, and moving its functions to the Department of Labour, had saved about $1 million. Health and safety (mines)  inspector, Michael Firmin,  was the sole inspector of mines left.

The bombs were set, and the fuses lit.

On 26 May 26 2001, the first “bomb” went off, with a NZ Herald article  revealing that a growing number of new or near-new houses were rotting because of lack of water-tightness.

On 19 November 2010, the second “bomb” went of at Pike River mine, as a methane explosion killed 29 mine-workers.

Investigation into both the “Leaky Homes Syndrome” and the Pike River disaster have one, inescapable common factor: regulations that were once in place, had been removed; altered; or watered-down. In both cases, de-regulation had meant a lack of direct responsibility for ensuring that whatever regulations did remain, were not observed.

Hopefully, New Zealand has learnt a harsh, expensive, and deadly lesson about de-regulation. Regulations are there for a reason. Like the road speed limit. We may not always like the nuisance that rules and regulations provide – but they exist for our safety and our financial security. (When the Huntly West mine blew up in 1992 there were no fatalites. (Former) Chief coal mine inspector Harry Bell had closed it down 36 hours before.)

If we give away regulation for expediency, or because it fits some trendy political free-market ideology – then be prepared  for the consequences. Because as sure as day follows night; there will be consequences.

One thing I have noticed about my generation, the “Baby Boomers”; we seem to be child-like in so many respects. We are  impatient – we want it now. Until the Cullen Fund – we didn’t want to save for our retirement (the Fund had to bribe us with a $1,000 kick-start from the government – ie, us, the taxpayer). We accepted tax-payer funded free education from our parents – only to abandon it and force User-Pays on our own children, through Student Fees. Charming.

We ignore complicated social issues – in favour of displaced penguins and “Wellywood” signs. We lose interest in matters that demand our long-term attention – a fact that politicians are aware of, and exploit to their benefit.

By god, we need to grow up. Because, collectively, we are still making incredibly bad or stupid decisions based on self-interest and short-term gain.

Our lack of collective wisdom; our inability to see things long-term; our willingness to accept short-term gain – and never mind the consequences – should give us cause for concern.

Unfortunately, I am pessimistic that we will “grow up” any time soon. In fact, I await the next silent “bomb” that is ticking away, somewhere, in the shadows. How much will it cost us? And will we pay dearly, in lives?

Postscript: following the global banking crisis, Ireland is now bankrupt and a fiscal basket-case needing bail-outs from the EU to survive.

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