We Can’t Make It Here Anymore


image001NOT TOO MANY PEOPLE have heard of James McMurtry. It was only by idly following a link on an obscure left-wing American website that I ever got to hear his “We Can’t make It Here Anymore”.

It’s a grim song, but hugely evocative of the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that grips so much of today’s “developed” world.

McMurty’s imagery is chilling:

See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock?
They’re just gonna set there till they rot.
‘Cause there’s nothing to ship, nothing to pack,
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks.
Empty storefronts around the square,
There’s a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere.
You don’t come down here ‘less you’re looking to score.
We can’t make it here anymore.

It was while watching John Campbell’s excellent series on the fate of Solid Energy that the lyrics of “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” started running through my head. McMurty’s grim refrain then caused a new and frightening thought to take shape in my mind.

What if the bosses at Solid Energy were right? What if their plans for a vastly expanded state-owned energy company was exactly the sort of vision New Zealand is crying out for? What if Solid Energy’s sudden reversal of fortune was attributable not simply to a sudden and devastating collapse in the international price of coal, but to the brutal fact that, when it comes to turning visions into realities, we can’t make it here anymore either.

There was a time when New Zealanders, just like Americans, believed themselves capable of making anything.

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As a boy I remember being taken in my father’s Super Snipe up the winding roads of the Waitaki Valley to observe the progress of the NZ Electricity Department’s vast hydro-electric engineering projects. There were dams all the way up the river: at Waitaki, Aviemore and, most impressively, at Benmore.

To be ushered into the vast halls housing the electricity generating turbines was to enter a veritable temple of technology. The only sign of the surging columns of water rushing through the metres-wide penstocks a ubiquitous hum and tremor.

The New Zealand State constructed these massive pieces of infrastructure because in a country the size of New Zealand nobody else could. It took the collective resources of the whole nation to build not only Aviemore and Benmore, but also the extraordinary Manapouri Power Station, Tekapo B, Ohau A, B and C, and finally, in the 1980s, the State’s last great hydro-electric project, the massive dam harnessing the energy of the Clutha River at Clyde.

Perhaps it was this concrete and steel legacy of public investment that inspired Don Elder and his high-paid band of engineers and planners to “think big” about the future of Solid Energy. Maybe they looked at the extraordinary achievements of state planning and construction between the 1930s and the 1980s and dreamed of replicating them in the Twenty-First Century.

Branching out from their core business of coal-mining they envisaged Solid Energy diversifying its operations into biofuel production from wood-chips and rape-seed and refining New Zealand’s vast lignite deposits into clean-burning briquettes.

Even the Prime Minister, John Key, was impressed by the scale and scope of their plans:

“They had very strong aspirations to be a Petrobras – a diversified natural resources company”, he told the NZ Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan. “There may be even be some logic behind that because of the volatility you get with one particular commodity.

“So it’s not that it’s such a crazy idea. It’s just that it would have required the Government to have significant investment at a time when we didn’t have the resources to do that, or the belief they could actually pull that off.”

In other words: The National Government didn’t believe we could, or should, make it here anymore.

Mr Key was wrong about not having the resources to back such a project. There are literally scores of billions of dollars sitting under-utilised in fenced-off government “funds”. The so-called “Cullen Fund” is probably the best known, but there are others, containing even more billions, that most New Zealanders know nothing about. Like the $22 billion currently being hoarded by the quite unnecessarily “fully-funded” ACC.

But Mr Key was much nearer the mark when he told Ms O’Sullivan about his government’s doubts that Solid Energy could actually pull off its expansion plans.

As the utter fiasco of its foray into growing rape-seed in the South Island high country revealed, the skills required for such a challenging agricultural operation simply weren’t available to them.

Fifty years ago, the public bodies responsible for planning, overseeing and, in some cases, constructing New Zealand’s energy generation infrastructure were staffed with people who had been professionally trained at the state’s expense, guaranteed employment for life, and who were able to draw on decades of institutional memory and practical experience.

Twenty-five years of neoliberalism have put paid to the capacity and confidence these public organisations contributed to New Zealand’s economy and society. The great departments of state – like the Electricity Department – have all been corporatised, broken-up and/or sold-off to the private sector.

We continue to educate our young people at considerable public expense, but we do not guarantee them the secure and well-remunerated employment in New Zealand which would see our investment repaid in the vital currency of confidence and enhanced national capacity.

Our best and brightest no longer build Aviemores, Benmores or Clydes. Instead, they head offshore, where the money, the confidence and the capacity has all relocated.

If we’re ever going to make it here anymore, that will have to change.


  1. Good article Chris,
    For the record James McMurtry is the son of the great American writer Larry McMurtry and James’ first album Too Long in the Wasteland is a minor classic

  2. Mr Key was wrong about not having the resources to back such a project. There are literally scores of billions of dollars sitting under-utilised in fenced-off government “funds”.

    You right, there are funds available but we don’t need them either. The government, being sovereign, could just have printed the money and spent it to build that infrastructure. Raise taxes, especially on the rich, to offset the increase in the amount of money in circulation (not that it would have risen much or caused a huge amount of inflation).

    The neo-liberal paradigm has taught us to believe that we need the wealth of the rich when we don’t as we already own all the resources in the country (although the rich are doing the damnedest to get their hands on it and this government (and previous Labour governments) is helping them). From there it’s just a case of distribution.

  3. How about this song from Twisted Sister as the anthem of the left:

    Oh We’re Not Gonna Take It
    no, We Ain’t Gonna Take It
    oh We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore

    we’ve Got The Right To Choose And
    there Ain’t No Way We’ll Lose It
    this Is Our Life, This Is Our Song
    we’ll Fight The Powers That Be Just
    don’t Pick Our Destiny ’cause
    you Don’t Know Us, You Don’t Belong

    oh We’re Not Gonna Take It
    no, We Ain’t Gonna Take It
    oh We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore

    oh You’re So Condescending
    your Gall Is Never Ending
    we Don’t Want Nothin’, Not A Thing From You
    your Life Is Trite And Jaded
    boring And Confiscated
    if That’s Your Best, Your Best Won’t Do

    we’re Right/yeah
    we’re Free/yeah
    we’ll Fight/yeah
    you’ll See/yeah

    oh We’re Not Gonna Take It
    no, We Ain’t Gonna Take It
    oh We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore

    oh We’re Not Gonna Take It
    no, We Ain’t Gonna Take It
    oh We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore
    no Way!

    we’re Right/yeah
    we’re Free/yeah
    we’ll Fight/yeah
    you’ll See/yeah

    we’re Not Gonna Take It
    no, We Ain’t Gonna Take It
    we’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore

    • “Evolution”

      I’m ahead… I’m advanced.
      I’m the first mammal to wear pants.
      I am at peace with my lust.
      I can kill cause in god I trust.
      It’s evolution baby!

      I’m a beast… I’m the man.
      Buying stocks on the day of the crash.
      On the loose, I’m a truck.
      All the rolling hills I’ll flatten ‘em out.
      It’s herd behavior… it’s evolution baby!

      Admire me, admire my home,
      Admire my son, he is my clone.
      This land is mine, this land is free,
      I’ll do what I want, yet irresponsibly.
      It’s evolution baby!

      I’m a thief, I’m a liar.
      There’s my church, I sing in the choir.
      Halelujah… Halelujah…

      Admire me, admire my home,
      Admire my song, admire my clothes.
      Cause we know an appetite for nightly feasts.
      Those ignorant Indians got nothing on me.
      Nothing. Why? Because it’s evolution baby!

      I am ahead… I am advanced,
      I am the first mammal to make plans.
      I crawled the earth, but now I’m higher.
      2010 watch it go to fire.
      It’s evolution baby! [2x]
      Do the evolution!
      Come on! [3x]
      It’s evolution baby!

      – Pearl Jam

  4. Well written but we must remember that it is not just the “great departments of state”, and it’s certainly not just in NZ.
    The co-joined twins of neoliberalism and globalisation have seen industries in all western nations dismantle manufacturing infrastructure across the board. When East Asia finally demands a true return for the labour of their citizens, and they will, we in the West will find that we truly have not the capability to ‘make it here any more”.
    It will take decades to re-tool.
    Meanwhile concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere steadily climbs.

  5. The clyde dam has always depressed me – went away on my OE and came back and the bastards had really built it, flooded that magnificent wild gorge.

    But we’re stuck with it – interestingly it’s not finished – the clyde dam has two half completed penstocks that just go nowhere – now imagine what would happen if we weren’t selling of these assets – instead of being in competition the company that owns that dam, and the competing companies that own the windfarms could get together along with the company that run the transmission lines and they could put generators on those penstocks, when the wind blows they could let the lake fill just a bit and when it doesn’t they could drain it just a bit faster and they could meet their peak power demands and everything would be just a bit more efficient, electricity would be cheaper.

    Instead of sanity and efficiency we’ve got competition – it’s in the electricity companys’ interests for power to be expensive, for there to be shortages, real or artificial – they make more money for their shareholders that way (remember Enron? they screwed me over when I lived in the US doing exactly that)

  6. Good article Chris, I have been thinking along these lines. The diversification strategy was probably worth a go, I don’t necessarily go along with the people that say that Solid Energy management were negligent. Also we hear today that Bill English admitted National placed pressure on Solid Energy to increase the dividend. Quite frankly National would have only done this if they also had some confidence that the diversification strategy was going to pay off eventually.

    I have worked for three of NZ’s largest corporates, we spent millions on projects that didnt make economic returns, but if you dont make those investments one thing is certain, your returns will diminish towards zero.

    It may be worth while keeping an eye on some of these businesses in the future.

    • Also we hear today that Bill English admitted National placed pressure on Solid Energy to increase the dividend. Quite frankly National would have only done this if they also had some confidence that the diversification strategy was going to pay off eventually.

      Nope, they had to do it to try and fill the holes left in the budget after they gave the rich tax cuts ergo, they would have done it anyway. Throw in the fact that they seemingly want to sell our assets at bargain basement prices to their rich mates and it becomes obvious that they couldn’t care less what happened to it.

  7. MADELEINE: And the powerhouse down on the river. All marbled inside! I thought it was like something out of the Bible! And we’d go out on the walkway and dad’d hold me and I’d look down at that river and dad’d tell me how thousands of years ago it’d been wrenched this way and that by volcanoes, and then suddenly engineers appeared taking readings and measurements and soon there were men working through the day and night under searchlights and then the river was diverted and and then came the turbines starting up and the roar under the spillway… and across the land pylons were humming and, and… Arapuni! So heroic, I thought! And I said to dad, “I want to build dams!” He looked so pleased.

    JUNE: I warned your mother not to marry a communist…

    “Midnight In Moscow”, Maidment Theatre Auckland, Apr 11-May 4, Circa Theatre Wgton, May 10-Jun 8.

  8. Yes, so true this article is.

    NZ – a land raped by corporate raiders, invited by repeated governments to steal, rape and pillage. Division and dispossession are the rule.

    No wonder all the victims are so resigned to their fates. Spirits of generations seem to have been broken.

    Not even anger is a force used anymore to throw out governments. Instead it is applied in road rage and other aggressive conduct against one another.

    If only people would wake up, stand up and end this bloody nightmare. But no, it is this fear, insecurity and enforced ignorance. They (the people) do not even see, hear, know and feel anymore. Sad, so sad it is, living in NZ 2013.

  9. Rob Muldoon’s Think Big schemes were at least well motivated even if their execution was dumbarsed (by the Master of Disaster himself: Bill Birch). Muldoon wasn’t above driving industies out of the New Zealand economy, himself, as witness what happened to the caravan construction industry, boat-building, and all those mill and works closures in places like Mosgiel and Shannon, and Waitara and Patea. But the neoclassical economic dreck that informed the notions of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson did most of the damage subsequently. I do not believe to this day that the full extent of the damage they wrought has been realised.

    A couple of people have touched lightly upon it here. Time was, school leavers could enter straight from school into career training whilst at the same time earning an income, and with a guaranteed job at the end of it. If you got employment in the State Sector, you got training in almost anything you might fancy: technical, professional, policy advice, administration.

    What seems to have been been forgotten is that a good deal of this training fed into the private sector. After a few years in the State, many would seek broader horizons. The Private sector provided those wider vistas. And the private sector got highly skilled and experienced people requiring training only in the specifics of the p.s. organistion’s line of business.

    I knew even in 1988 (and was telling anyone who would listen) that when Roger Douglas was finished, that system would be broken, and nothing whatever done to replace it. School leavers, people made redundant, everyone was now expected to upskill, in their own time, at their own expense, with no proper income, and no concrete job prospects at the end of it. No wonder you have 200 people going for 7 unskilled jobs. Who is going to take a punt like that?

    As it happens a lot of people do, and some no doubt get lucky. But many find they have just spent a year, two, three, or more, racked up a swingeing debt, still no job nor prospect of getting one. You would think a kid with a commercial Pilot’s licence and training certificate could do well in this country, eh? Yep: a tick above minimum wage if he’s lucky, in what I am told, outside the main airlines, a cowboy industry. Guess where that guy is now? Yep: Oz.

    And the private sector is moaning about the shortage of skilled and trained people for heaven’s sake! They end up importing people. But where do they come from? From countries who are similarly placed all on account of a slavish adherence to a monetary policy that gave the rich licence to loot the Common Weal, at the expense of everyone else.

    I’ve expressed interest in buying shares in Mighty River, by the way, not because I agree with its sale, but because I don’t. Here is hoping that Opposition Parties are committed to re-nationalisation. Yeah. Right.

    • What the economists, politicians and other neo-liberal types don’t want to admit is that it is the government as our representative that is the source of wealth and not the private sector. If it was the private sector then our economy would be booming but instead it’s going backwards and it’s been doing so since the 1980s and the 4th Labour government. The mass privatisation and dismantling of the state has correlated with increased inequality, increasing poverty and a decline in our ability, as a nation, to look after ourselves from our own resources.

      We’re told today that we can’t afford it and that we must have foreign investment. This seems strange to me as we already own those resources and affording it comes down to getting our people to actually do it with our resources and all this requires is that the government print the money and spend it into the economy directly hiring the people. Taxes then are to pull the money back out so as to prevent excess accumulation.

      That money spent into the economy by the government? It drives the private sector in the small things that they do.

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