RICHARD PREBBLE has always been the master of the telling anecdote. A born politician of prodigious talent, he needed little formal coaching in the dark arts of political persuasion. From his halcyon days in the Fourth Labour Government, to the years he spent keeping Act above the 5 percent MMP threshold, Prebble’s knack for illustrating the need for change with a telling anecdote was always on display. Facts and figures are easily forgotten, but a good story settles into the voters’ memory and is extremely hard to extract.
When the state-owned railways Prebble had pledged to save were being “corporatized” (i.e. readied for sale to private buyers) a story began doing the rounds which Labour insiders always insisted came from Prebble’s Office. It was “The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer”.
According to this tale, New Zealand Railways and its staff were so incompetent (or was it corrupt and/or thieving?) that somewhere between its point of loading and its final destination an entire bulldozer had somehow been made to disappear into thin air. I lost count of the number of times the story was repeated. In Parliament; at Labour Party meetings; in the newspapers; on radio and television: The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer very soon came to stand for everything that was inefficient – if not downright dodgy – about New Zealand’s nationalised industries.
I was reminded of The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer only last Sunday when Richard Prebble popped-up on the panel of TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs show. Responding to comments from one of his fellow panellists on the fate of the proposed Light Rail Network for Auckland, Prebble predictably opted for the telling anecdote.
Viewers discovered that Prebble was not a fan of light rail. As a boy, they learned, he had travelled up Dominion Road by tram to school and the memory was not a happy one. “If anyone thinks trams up Dominion Road are going to solve Auckland’s transport problems,” declared Prebble with his trademark certainty, ”they’re dreaming.”
This was clever politics. The very idea that the snowy-haired Prebble could ever have been a tousled school-boy was itself preposterous. Surely, Prebble had emerged from his mother’s womb with a lawyer’s wig in one hand and a copy of Parliament’s Standing Orders in the other? Never mind. The image of this young chap making his way through the Auckland suburbs aboard something as quaintly retrograde as a tram was an arresting one. It spoke to the viewers of old technology and an Auckland that no longer existed. Effortlessly, Prebble’s telling anecdote had made the Auckland Light Rail project look like a costly and inefficient exercise in political nostalgia.
But was it true?
The problem with anecdotes is that they are notoriously difficult to verify. Though The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer was repeated endlessly by right-wing talkback hosts and political commentators, I don’t recall ever reading even one honest-to-goodness news story detailing the events leading up to the bulldozer’s disappearance; whether or not the vehicle was ever found; and, if it had been recovered, who was ultimately deemed responsible for misplacing it?
With this journalistic deficiency in mind, I set out to discover whether or not The Boy on the Tram story was true or false.
Thanks to the prodigious memory of Professor Google, I soon discovered that if Richard Prebble had travelled up Dominion Road on a tram, then he would have been a very young school-boy indeed. In fact, the oldest he could possibly have been was five – which seems a very young age to be travelling alone on any sort of public transport!
For the record, Prebble was born in 1948 and the tramline along Dominion Road came into service in 1930 and was decommissioned twenty-three years later in 1953. The reason for the service’s demise lay in the Auckland Transport Board’s 1949 decision to replace all of the city’s trams with trolley-buses. Accordingly, in 1956, the last of the highly-efficient, non-polluting, electric-powered trams which had served Auckland magnificently since 1902 ceased running and the tramlines were torn-up.
My guess is that the young Richard Prebble who travelled up Dominion Road in the 1950s and 60s did not do so on a tram (a vehicle which runs on rails) but on an electric trolley-bus which drew down its motive power from overhead wires via long flexible poles. These vehicles were very prone to random stops and starts (as any Wellingtonian will tell you) on account of the fact that the conducting poles were forever becoming dislodged – forcing the driver to get out and very carefully reconnect them to the power source. [Trams also draw their motive power from overhead powerlines, but because the vehicle runs on tracks, allowing the conducting apparatus to be fixed to the tram’s roof, they are much less prone to breaking down.]
Now, it may be that Richard Prebble was simply confused about the modes of public transport he used in his youth. Then again, he may not have been confused at all. What isn’t in dispute is that the opponents of the plans for a light-rail-based public transport system in Auckland are forever using the word “tram”.
The reason for this is obvious. In the public’s mind trams are cumbersome, out-of-date vehicles from the days when men sported trilby hats and women wore ankle-length skirts. Prebble’s Boy on the Tram story plays directly into these negative public stereotypes. Regardless of whether or not his political anecdote is true, it is, as always, bloody clever.