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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

Infrastructure – Systematic thinking about Systems


It’s been a month where infrastructure has looked fragile. The ferry grounding (and the previous decision to cancel the replacements), the TransPower pylon collapse in Northland, and even the high-profile troubles with RNZAF’s vintage B757s (both over 31 years old) have highlighted the age, fragility and vulnerability of some of our most important connective systems.

That’s not good… the Aratere Interislander ferry runs aground in Picton, June 21, but it is far from the only piece of national infrastructure needing upgrading.

On the ferries, the Government has played for time, saying it’s getting and “reading” advice. But time is against them, as KiwiRail is talking only about keeping the current ships running another five years. Building new ships will take most of that time; buying (again) second-hand ones might buy more time, but at the expense of reliability and, I fear, safety. Cook Strait (including Tory Channel and the Wellington Heads) is an unforgiving waterway, and if the Aratere’s steering gear had failed at the entrance to Tory Channel, the ship could easily have driven itself onto the rocks at speed. I will no longer use these ships.

The Northland pylon seems to have been human error. Maintenance crews undid almost all the bolts holding the pylon down, and unsurprisingly it fell over. Heavens. What level of training and supervision does that reflect? And as for the B757, well, the RNZAF is commendably committed to safe flying, so there are a lot of breakdowns. The planes are just too old. It would be a perfectly good choice for Ministers to fly commercially as a matter of policy in future, but the point is that – like the ferries – you can only put off new investment for a bit, before you start to pay the price.

Cynics at the Wheel

The problem here is that the Government is like Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic – someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Infrastructure is a common good (we all depend on the lights working, water flowing, telecoms systems working). Each is a system and not just a collection of things, built up from a succession of investments in connecting and supportive elements. For example, the Cook Strait ferries depend on port facilities, navigation aids, crews, pilots, tugs, connecting roads, internet booking and banking systems, catering and bunkering and more besides. Infrastructure includes people, their skills, institutions and support systems as well as ships, planes and pylons.

I don’t think the Government sees that. KiwiRail’s defunct plans for a new ship was rejected because they also included the cost of decent new port facilities (the current ones are literally rotting). So, the numbers looked big. And the Government choked on the total. My prediction is that, with hindsight, we will find that the rejected proposal was very good value.

I rarely find myself in agreement with Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown, but his comment that big projects need to be managed by engineers, and not Wellington committees, rings true.

I’d add that the government needs to see infrastructure as systems, not just things. So, infrastructure isn’t just roads, ferries and pylons, but the people, skills pipelines, data systems, institutions, and other bits of support and connectivity to make things work and keep them operating, maintained, upgraded and fit for purpose. The real test for a successful bit of infrastructure is that in daily life we don’t notice it. Being taken for granted is a measure of success.

Maintenance crews undo all the bolts holding down a Northland power pylon and the predictable ensures – cutting power to much of the far north for several days in June.


The Pharmac cancer drug story fits this picture too. The health system is a complex system (I’ve written about this before in the Advocate), with all the elements I’ve described above. The added sensitivities are that health consumers have less choice and are more vulnerable and the skills pipelines are long, costly and very sensitive to trans-Tasman wage comparisons.

And the drugs bill is eye-watering. Pharmac, for all its faults and its occasional tin ear, is a strong player in this system, good at getting the best value for money and helping the most people at least cost. Of course, an aging population, rising drug costs and the unavoidable emotional element (others’ drugs are a cost; mine are an investment) mean this is always going to be imperfect, and prone to politicisation.

Which is what we’ve seen as the government clearly underestimated how much people cared about their election promise to fund more cancer drugs, and led to an outcry when they then kicked it into the long grass of next year. All’s well that ends well, but I’m sure that we will end up paying more than we needed to for these drugs (the pharma companies will have seen us coming), and I’m sure the government will get addicted to tinkering with the health machinery, rather than tackling it as a system. That was hard to do with DHBs – their stubborn localism was inefficient, but resisted Wellington tinkering.

Gosh, I sound like Wayne Brown. That’ll never do.

Ian Fletcher is a former head of New Zealand’s security agency, the GCSB, chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission and biosecurity expert for the Queensland government. These days he is a commercial flower grower in the Wairarapa and consultant to the apiculture industry with NZ Beekeeping Inc.


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