(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 4.)
It’s sad to see Chris Laidlaw’s career come to this.
A photo in The Dominion Post last week said it all. It was taken at a parliamentary select committee hearing where regional council representatives were called on to explain the multiple failings of the new Wellington bus system.
In Kevin Stent’s photo, Laidlaw, who as council chairman has had to soak up much of the abuse, looks brooding and resentful. His expression says he doesn’t need any more of this.
He might well be thinking, “I had a glittering career. Is this how it ends?”
He could be forgiven for harbouring bleak thoughts. Laidlaw has had a storied life: outstanding All Black halfback (he was rated one of the game’s greatest passers of the ball), courageous author (his book Mud in Your Eye led to him being ostracised by many in the rugby establishment), Rhodes Scholar, diplomat (he played a significant role behind the scenes in persuading South Africa to renounce apartheid), race relations conciliator, Labour MP (let’s not mention the taxi chits), broadcaster (he was Radio New Zealand’s Sunday-morning host for 13 years), and of course, regional councillor.
He’s one of several former Labour and Green MPs – another is his sister-in-law, Sue Kedgley – who have found a home in local government.
I was tempted to insert the word “cosy” before “home” in that sentence because local government provides a normally comfortable late-life career. The pay’s not bad and regional councillors are mostly spared the close and fiercely critical scrutiny that city and district councils are subjected to.
All of which must have made the past couple of months particularly trying for Laidlaw. In my few encounters with him I’ve always found him personable, but I don’t think he’s a man to whom humility and contrition would come easily.
The bus furore was probably not what he was expecting, still less hoping for, when he became GWRC chairman. It’s not hard to detect a slightly petulant tone in his statements and a reluctance to acknowledge that the council cocked up spectacularly.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that Laidlaw is one of that school of social-democrat politicians who politically came of age in the idealistic 1960s and doggedly cling to a misplaced faith in central planning.
This is a model of government that imposes top-down solutions in the belief that bureaucrats and policy-makers know better than the punters who actually use the systems they devise.
Trouble is, the bureaucrats and theorists are often isolated in their own bubbles, unburdened by experience of how the real world works and what ordinary people want. We’re seeing this played out in Auckland too, where planners have created their own grotesque public transport fiasco.
I wonder if that’s the bigger issue here. As local government bureaucracies grow bigger and more centralised, there’s an increasing risk that they will get things wrong.
On paper, it often makes sense to have over-arching administrative structures rather than bitsy local councils all doing their own thing and protecting their own patches.
But the bigger a council gets, the more distant it become from the people it’s supposedly accountable to, as the Auckland experience shows. It tends to take on a life of its own. That’s why I’m still not convinced that a single council should replace the three existing ones in the Wairarapa, where I live.
The kindest thing that can be said for central planners and their political masters is that they usually start with the best of motives. But good intentions too easily morph into control-freak government by People Who Know Best.
The crux of the problem is that they expect the world to conform to their theoretical models rather than vice-versa. And when it all turns to custard they disappear down a rabbit-hole of butt-covering reviews and inquiries rather than simply admitting they cocked up and starting again from scratch.
I saw a classic man from Central Planning on TV3’s The Project last week. He was a transport planner – possibly the worst type – and he had the slightly crazed eyes of a true believer.
He was trying to convince a sceptical panel that Auckland needs a 30 kmh speed limit. Why? Because he thinks people should walk or cycle rather than drive cars, and if it takes a 30 kmh speed limit to force them out of their vehicles – well, so be it.
In other words, he was talking about compulsion by stealth. Never mind what people want.
Translate that attitude to Wellington and it becomes clear that if the bus system is a disaster, it's probably because the users don't know what's good for them. Clearly they must try harder to make it work.