For weeks now, a torrent of emails have come to me and other Hastings-based Regional Councillors regarding delays in container handling at the Port.
The complaints have come from growers, pack houses and truckers … all desperate to get Hawke’s Bay’s apples through the Port to export customers during peak season. The Port is their lifeline, and its efficiency is crucial to the region’s economic well-being.
But the complaints are about excessive waiting times at the Port, often causing lost shipments and sales and, at the minimum, sharply escalating truck transport expenses that spell the difference in profitability for growers and truckers alike.
On Monday, a number of councillors met with Port Chairman Jim Scotland and CEO Garth Cowie to convey concerns and to better understand what was happening and how/when undeniable problems might get fixed.
It was a ‘full and frank’ discussion, as diplomats say, and occasionally tempers flared.
But the takeaway for me was that some mistakes were acknowledged, that a suite of short-term remedial steps to partially alleviate the situation were being taken, and that other systems and capital improvements were being explored that could enable the Port to better handle seasonal export peaks next year and into the future. In addition, it became clearer that operating efficiencies were also needed on the part of growers and trucking companies.
We were also confronted with the trade-off between making needed service and capacity improvements (some of which involve significant capital investments) and squeezing every last possible dividend out of the Port so as to subsidise HBRC rates … at bottom, a ‘hide the cost-pea under the walnut’ hustle perpetrated by the politicians, not the Port.
That political twist aside, and to that point, a reasonable conclusion was that our Port custodians are neither wrongly motivated nor ignorant.
But then the subject of explaining all this to the public came up.
And that’s when the tone deafness and aversion to public interaction of a council-controlled, but commercial organisation like the Port (so-called CCOs) became apparent.
You see, the chain of public accountability for a CCO like the Port is quite extended and attenuated …
The planners and logistics staff, who might have misjudged the flood of product to be handled, work for the Port CEO, insulated from any external review.
The Port CEO works for the Port Board, and is really overseen by the Port Chairman, so the CEO is also insulated from any external review.
Nowadays, the Port Chairman reports to the HB Regional Investment Company Board (HBRIC).
The HBRIC Board through its Chairman reports to the Regional Council.
And in this feudal scheme, individual Regional Councillors are unwanted interlopers, urged by ancient canons of ‘good governance’ to keep away from mere ‘management’ issues.
However, some Councillors do not subscribe to the ancient canons, and regard the breakdown of a key transmission part in the region’s economic engine at a critical juncture as worthy of their legitimate attention.
For their part, the senior folks at the Port and HBRIC behave a bit like Royals. Mere commoners darest not touch the hems of their cloaks. Even some Councillors genuflect as they pass by.
Our local Royals are out of touch. They simply do not believe they need to front up to the public when things go awry. That’s regarded as a breech of protocol. When pressed, they might be induced begrudgingly to grant an audience to a suitably-ranked emissary of the agrarian estate or tourism rabble. But such encounters are best kept out of sight so that any hint of inter-class mingling — let alone public accountability — cannot spread.
And surely such encounters cannot become expected practice! What’s a Royal if not distant?
So it came as no real surprise when, only a day after the meeting with Councillors, the two most senior employees of the Port, asked by Hawke’s Bay Today to explain another, different criticism of the Port (this time with respect to cruise ships), declined to comment!
My understanding from our Councillors briefing is that they indeed have a reasonable rebuttal. So why not give it … in public? Why appear unresponsive (which implies arrogant, uncaring, guilty as charged) on the front page of the daily newspaper?
Council controlled entities like the Port are not private fiefdoms. They hold public responsibility and require public trust.
So they need to get accustomed to addressing the public and its concerns (which in a modern democracy means more than issuing an annual report or complying with a Statement of Intent).
While we still welcome Royal heirs to our shore for ceremonial visits, we should no longer tolerate royal airs at our Port … those archaic days are gone.