Getting some perspective into monstrous matters

Could any bunch of bumbling bureaucrats have done as badly with Air New Zealand as the private sector geniuses?

They’ve reduced a good little airline to an orphan on the taxpayer’s teat — maybe killed it. They’ve wrecked the livelihoods of thousands of decent Australians. They’ve tarnished the koru’s image and the country’s standing and put exports at risk.

Not a bad 18 months work.

But it fits with the long, sad list of failures abroad by entrepreneurs from the land of the flightless bird.

OK, unfurl the socialist banner. Entrepreneurs are too costly for national pride and wellbeing. Air New Zealand should never have been privatised.

Not so fast. Along with bad judgment there was also bad luck.

Had the government taken the British Airways (BA) option at privatisation and not foisted on Air New Zealand shares and seats on its board for its competitor, Qantas, the story might have been different.

Instead, Qantas, privatised in 1995, now has BA’s global strength behind it. Air New Zealand got Brierley — which blew shareholder wealth on a dud British hotel chain. With that lot in the cockpit, why be surprised Air New Zealand bought a dud airline?

Next recall that the then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1994 ripped up the single air market agreement under which Air New Zealand would have flown in Australia without having to buy Ansett.

Then look who’s laughing. Rupert Murdoch sold pups on both sides of the Tasman which turned wolf and ate their new owners. Last week his prize newspaper, The Australian, danced on Ansett’s grave hurling abuse at Air New Zealand and Helen Clark’s government.

Where had the usually measured, thoughtful Australian gone? Let’s give it the benefit of some doubt: perhaps it was momentarily unhinged by the emotion of the demonic acts in the United States.

An important lesson from those acts of brilliant barbarism is perspective.

Horror and rage are appropriate. Religion perverted is a very, very bad thing, as Catholics and protestants proved five centuries ago.

Appropriate, too, is bewilderment at the reawakening in our secure, rich world, where science had tamed nature, disease and ghosts, of our ancestors’ defenceless fears — in their case, of the capricious plague and unknowable dark spirits of the forest, in ours mayhem by terrorists from out of the ether.

But is the obsessive news coverage of rescues and human anguish appropriate when it excess that paid to the more numerous human toll of some earthquakes (where the victims are not our kin)?

Some perspective on Aghanis would help, too. They are not all suicide killers (as alleged to me in a rambling unsolicited email from Florida) any more than all Americans are murderers on the strength of the Oklahoma bombing or all French blow up protest boats at friendly countries’ wharves.

So would some perspective help on Air New Zealand.

The airline business is extremely hazardous, awash in red ink as owners try to pick a safe route through radical regulatory change and huge swings in costs and revenues — now compounded by the fallout from the barbarism in the United States.

That sort of horrendously risky business is the last place into which a sensible government will commit taxpayers’ money as captive shareholders. And, indeed, there has been no talk by the government, not even by the Alliance, of reversing, or even revisiting, the privatisation. The government may not be about to sell businesses but it also (Jim’s bank aside) isn’t keen to buy businesses.

But — perspective intrudes again — airlines are crucial to modern life and economies, to no country more than this. The politicians had no choice but a rescue because there would have been no more than a skeleton service left and exports would have suffered.

National interest intervened. Private fools could not be left to take their medicine, because their medicine was ours. We taxpayers may yet become shareholders of a sort.

At best it will now be Singapore’s airline, its head office here and five of its nine board members New Zealand citizens, but trading by the grace of Singapore Airlines — if it trades at all after the Australian unions and regulators have done with it.

Rough justice. But also just deserts.

* This was written before Singapore International Airlines decided against an increased stake, thereby diminishing its likely influence.