Thu Jul 3rd, 2008 at 10:19:38 AM EST
After allegedly helping lead the world into our free-market hell, New Zealand is pointing the way out, according to Seamus Milne in the Guardian:
On Tuesday, Clark's government renationalised the country's railways and ferry services, privatised in the early 90s and subsequently run down and asset-stripped by the Australian owners. Launching the new, publicly owned KiwiRail, finance minister Michael Cullen declared that privatisation had "been a painful lesson for New Zealand". Nor is this the first renationalisation by the Clark government, which took over Air New Zealand after it nearly collapsed in 2001 and has also built up a successful state-owned retail bank - named Kiwibank, needless to say.
And unlike Gordon Brown's government, which strained every nerve to avoid nationalising Northern Rock to avoid seeming "old Labour", Clark has championed the takeover of rail as exactly what is needed to build a modern, environmentally sustainable transport network. Against a background of global warming and rising fuel prices, she argues, rail is a "central part of 21st-century economic infrastructure".
Given Britain's similarly disastrous experience with rail privatisation, you might think that taking a leaf out New Zealand's book would be just the kind of popular policy to help dig Brown's government out of its hole. Despite the modest improvements achieved by putting the lethal Railtrack out of its misery, Britain's railway system remains a byword for bewildering fragmentation, unreliability, overcrowding, delays and exorbitant cost - which has only now completed a high-speed link to the Channel tunnel, 15 years after its state-owned French counterpart.
Fleeced by the private train companies and rolling stock contractors (some of them pocketing 30% rates of return), it is now the most expensive, opaque and inefficient rail system in Europe. As the Campaign for Better Transport reported yesterday, walk-on fares are on average nearly five times those booked in advance - and all ticket prices are set to spiral in the next few years. Meanwhile, renationalisation is strongly supported by the public and is in fact official Labour party policy.
But far from planning to end what has been a disastrous experiment, the rail minister, Tom Harris, last month insisted that if the Tories hadn't privatised the railways, New Labour would have sold them off when it came to power in 1997. In a surreal aside that will baffle most UK train passengers, he insisted that "the private railway has provided a level of investment, innovation, imagination that wouldn't have happened if BR had stayed as it was".
The rhetoric in Ireland is still about privatising public transport, which is still mostly state owned. We'll catch up in a decade or two, maybe.