Conferences & Exhibitions

In the PM’s words

There was a big turnout of delegates to hear the presentation by Prime Minister Bill English. The subject turned ‘industry’ focused at question time. By ALAN TITCHALL.

The first question was from Caroline Boot from Plan A.

“One of the most exciting things that our industry sees in your policies is your investment in infrastructure.

“However, one of the first subjects on the conference agenda was procurement and it happens to be my sweet spot as well.

“We see the MBIE and the Transport Agency both doing excellent work in procurement, but largely at a strategic level and pretty much every company in this room I’m sure would have a story to tell about inefficient procurement processes that are affecting our businesses and our ability to invest.

“So, my question, if it is a question, is what will the government do, assuming and hoping you are the government after September, to improve that procurement at a grassroots level?”

Prime Minister’s answer

“Well, the short answer is ask Steven Joyce.

“I’ve now figured out what prime ministers do, they swan around the country taking credit from the work and finance minister.

“Look, the government procurement always needs to be subject to external testing and one of the problems of course is that if you’re in the process you’re somewhat reluctant to point out its efficiencies.

“We will succeed better as a country if we improve the ways which exist in some sectors with an ongoing discussion between industry and government about how to do it.

“I’m sure you’ll appreciate this – people doing it [procurement] are eternal monopolies. There will always be a Ministry of Education. They spent $5 billion over the past four or five years. They are a massive procurement agency and at the same time as doing that we’ve got to try to upgrade them from a group of people who used to do policy to a serious infrastructure procurement [agency].

“So in that sense, like a number of others, corrections, justice, certainly housing in New Zealand, it is still developing maturity.

“And we have a maturity index that’s now applied to all – that’s transparent and that’s picking them up, so it’s got a strong focus on lifting their performance. But it’s got a long way to go.

“And a lot of that is just from a lack of understanding, because they don’t experience things like cost to capital; you know time is money, well the public service time is more money not less money. You take longer, you get more money basically.

“So you have to work at creating a forum where that discussion can be had. Bearing in mind the problem that [they have] is probity, which in the public sector has to be pristine.

“In my experience, the trade off is how you have the conversation, but maintain the probity and we’re certainly willing – and I know Steven Joyce would say it if he was here – to build up that dialogue and create safe spaces where you can have those discussions.

“In a less mature sector often the public sector just doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. So [for] social housing we had to invent the transactions because they’d never done it in New Zealand. And so it’s no wonder they’re a bit lumpy and a bit difficult.”

The second question was from Peter Silcock, of CCNZ.

“We have got more infrastructure work on than ever before, and it’s certainly challenging for the industry in terms of encouraging more people to come into our industry.

“Two issues around this. One, how can you help us with that? And secondly, isn’t the more immediate option of solving some of these shortages through immigration?”

Prime Minister’s answer

“The most important thing the government can do for you is get all of our young people from the start line, and the start line is essentially NCEA level 2.

“Now, in my opinion, it’s up to the industry to foster its own supply pipeline of talent and for everyone to expect that government does its job with positive education and that it funds the relevant parts of the systems that train them. I’m seeing a positive pattern around the country of industries showing some real long-term interest in that skills pipeline because they can now see they are going to need them and there’s enough sustainability to make it worth the investment.

“With respect to immigration and trying to find that balance, we want to make sure the Kiwis who can do the jobs do get them on one hand.

“On the other hand, there are thousands of new jobs a month we have to get the skills in. As I’ve explained to people who want to shut down immigration – we’ve just got to build the houses, otherwise they’re homeless.

“So, we have to have the people build the houses and if you cut immigration to 10,000 you can’t, you just won’t have them.

“So we have announced some changes recently which I’m sure you’re familiar with. We are open to the dialogue, but we don’t mind a bit of tension around it.

“That’s not our job, our job is to maintain the integrity of the borders of New Zealand. Firstly decide and have control of who comes in, who goes out, and match the skills of where we think the shortages are.

“Again, the government machine is getting used to much more interaction at a practical level with industry about this.

“When it comes to things like bureaucratic process the best way to advance that is to show us actual examples.

“General whinging won’t help because you can’t fix that but if someone says, ‘this type of visa will take six months but actually you’ve done it in two’, then great we can work with that. Mike Woodhouse [MP] is here to take any complaints. He’s used to it.”

Question from Malcolm Abernethy:

“Manawatu Gorge Road: What sort of plans do you have to try to come up with some sort of replacement – for example a tunnel, a new alignment somewhere or an improvement to Saddle Road. What are the options? What are you looking at?”

Prime Minister’s reply:

“Well, Simon Bridges would be the guy who’s most on top of it, he’s Minister of Transport.

“It has been closed 18 months in the past and as far as I understand NZTA has taken over the Saddle route and will be responsible for its maintenance and upgrade because in the foreseeable future that’s the practical option.

“I’ve advised that other realignments are incredibly expensive and the Saddle route is rough, it’s less convenient, but it’s not that much longer.

“And there’s concerns with Woodville and Ashurst. Woodville is understandably worried about traffic bypassing. Ashurst is worried about it going through the town because it’s a nice viable town. So that’s the steps ahead, so I’d imagine there will be a significant upgrade on the Saddle route while there’s further work done on a more permanent solution.”

This article first appeared in Contractor September 2017.

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