Seventh hell

It used to sell out in minutes. The pre-event parade stopped the traffic and the post-event carnival would party long into the night. Yet for the third successive year, the Wellington Sevens, despite featuring the likes of Sonny Bill in the run-up to its debut at the Rio Olympics, will fail to play to a full house. And with just 12,000 tickets sold up to this week, even the most optimistic walk-up numbers mean that the Cake Tin will be half full, or rather, half empty. The dire threats issued by the NZRU that unthinkably, Wellington could lose its premier sporting event, if not the major event in the city (apologies to WoW and the festival), look ominously close to being reality. How on earth has it come to this?

Scarily, the organisers seem unsure themselves, and have resorted to reeling off the list of changes to the event which they hoped would turn fortunes around. Sport pundits, bloggers and attendees have been quick to offer reasons and suggestions on social media: tickets too expensive, too many drunks, police too heavy handed with drunks, crap choice of food etc. The problem is that the WRU’s changes have gone a long way to addressing these without any discernible pick-up in sales. Ticket prices have been slashed and there are great rates for kids and those only wishing to attend on one day. Efforts have been made to accommodate families, and stadium food and drink has come on leaps and bounds from the days when it was just Tui, Export Gold, warm chardonnay and cold hot dogs.

Is it goodbye to all this?

Sadly, I think the two conflicting views are both missing the point. The rugbyhead wowsers maintain that in recent years boozy antics had got out of control compared to the early years. However, when I first moved to Wellington over ten years ago, I attended the Sevens and could hardly have described the crowd as a paragon of sobriety. Nor was it unpleasant bedlam either. Police have tended to overreact to what is a very small minority of trouble makers: there were 9 arrests last year out of 30,000 attendees – barely worse than a typical Saturday night down Courtenay Place, I’d guess.

Ticket prices are a function of demand, for sure, but if a drastic reduction still has no effect on improving sales, then evidently a significant group of people who used to go simply no longer wish to. And that brings me to the real, economic reason why the Sevens has struggled: the Auckland Nines. An event that sells out in minutes every year for 13 years, and is the only event of its kind in the country, suddenly struggles the minute a rival event is launched in a larger population hub. It’s obvious. And it’s one of business’s oldest canons: if you go from selling a product easily to struggling heavily, despite cutting prices, you have a competitor, plain and simple.

This idea has been dismissed by those who think that because the Nines is League and the Sevens is Rugby, they will appeal to different crowds. This forgets the classic Sevens maxim that the rugby was only ever a part of the appeal. And this is why stepping up the police intervention and trying to make the event “all about the rugby” this year has doomed sales to fall even further. In its heyday, less than half of tickets were sold to Wellingtonians anyway. I vividly remember irate locals who had missed out on tickets whinging about scalpers and asking for a greater portion of tickets to be reserved for Wellington fans.

And where did most of the out-of-towners come from? Auckland, of course. The one place with a sufficiently larger population, who lacked any alternative local event, and who could get cheap flights provided they were booked in advance. Each year, the Dominion Post would indulge its little brother inferiority complex and interview a Jafa or two, who would politely reassure the interviewer that they just loved coming down to windy old Welly for the Sevens.

Not any more. I suspect the organisers and the council are fully aware of this, hence the move to a Sat-Sun event (no need for attendees to fly home on the Sunday now). The promotion of the event has had a markedly more local feel. And yet if the stadium ends up just about half full, which it might, it will be as popular as ever with locals, who only ever made up about 50% of the crowd anyway. The glaring truth is not that Wellingtonians have fallen out of love with the Sevens in a signficant way, it is that New Zealand cannot sustain two sell-out sporting events of this nature within weeks of each other during the summer. And the one in the city three times the size will naturally do better.

Tasteless, but fun.

Depressingly, moving the event will only make things worse. There are only two serious contenders: Auckland and Dunedin. Christchurch is a long way from being ready for such an undertaking and Hamilton has never really expressed any genuine interest. Dunedin has a fabulous venue, but with a catchment area of 120-150,000 people (about a third the size of Greater Wellington), it would surely struggle to sell out a capacity the same as the Cake Tin. And cheap flights to Dunedin from other centres are harder to come by. The most pressing problem, though, is that the Sevens calendar as it stands would mean that the event would be outside of term time – idiotic, as anyone who has watched the tumbleweed blow through the Octagon when the students are away will know.

If it goes to Auckland it will simply cannibalise the existing support for the Nines, an event whose own sales have tailed off a little after the first year sellout. You would be left with a half full Eden Park on consecutive weekends. Auckland may well have 1.4m potential customers, but its sheer size has meant that crowd attendances have often been disappointing, and Eden Park remains a pain to get to unless you are close to a connected train line.

Combined with a severe dip in form of the NZ Sevens team, the timing of this couldn’t be worse, and there is a cruel irony that after dominating a sport when no-one really cared, New Zealand is in danger of losing its place at the Sevens table on and off the field, just as the sport is catapulted to global success by the Rio Olympics. Give it a go, aye, and would the cops please think about only evicting people who are, y’ know, genuinely causing trouble?


Mind the gap

Rootin’ tootin’ hockey mom Sarah Palin has endorsed Donald Trump for President, the lovely guy who once tweeted “if Hilary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America”. You go, girl (sigh). And in the same week, New Zealand’s State Services Commission revealed data showing that even in good old liberal progressive Wellington, male public servants earn as much as 39% more than women. Kate Sheppard: please stop spinning, you’ll disturb your headstone.

On cue, a drearily predictable back-and-forth has ensued on social media about the issue, or non-issue, as others would have it. Let’s start with some figures: for every dollar in the US that the average man earns, a woman earns 77c; the next Equal Pay Day is April 12th: that’s how far into the year the average woman will have to work to match what a man earned in 2015; the NZ Ministry of Education, a department which has many more women employees than men, still pays its men 26% more.

The rebuttal, which has come thick and fast, has focused on two predictable mansplanations. One is the classic cliche that apples must be compared with apples: the discrepancies are down to seniority. Although many government departments have a majority of women staff, the picture is very different at senior level. 60% of the public service are women, but that falls to 40% for those in senior positions, and for the very highest tiers and chief executives it falls still further. Hence, even if women are paid the same as men for exactly the same role, there are not enough of them in better paid, more senior roles to maintain average pay parity with men.

A number of reasons have been proffered: women take time out to have children which reduces their overall career experience; women are not aggressive enough in seeking top jobs; women work fewer hours than men. These are risible. Longer hours ensconced in the office should not necessarily correlate directly with value – that is presenteeism rather than productivity. The needless stigma around flexible work is gradually fading, and the realisation dawns on many who decide to or who are forced to work from home, that they become much more productive away from interminable, pointless meetings and mindless coffee interruptions. With the burden of child pickups, house maintenance and food prep usually falling on the woman when both partners work (hats off to those of us men who contribute their fair share), is any thought given to the practical organisation and juggling done at home rather than the bald stat that women ‘work’ for 37 hours to men’s 43? And why should aggression rather than talent be rewarded?

As for children, never mind that employers make too much of a distinction between paternity and maternity, hindering those dads who might want to take time out instead of mum, even if we assume that the burden should always fall on the mother – which it shouldn’t – is it really plausible to argue that a woman who takes time out for having children has permanently compromised her chances of promotion? If a woman goes on leave at 6 months pregnant, say, and does not return to work until the child is 21 months old, that’s 2 years out of the workforce. Multiply by 2 for the 2nd of 2.4 kids and you get a loss of 4 years. Let’s call it 5 years. We work for about 45 years. Given that many employees reach their highest rung on the ladder at 50 or even earlier, is it credible to argue that giving up a ninth of your career earlier on precludes any chance of progressing her career at a later stage? Or are we looking at ageism as well as sexism here?

All of this seems like nit-picking, if we consider that professions which have comprised a majority of women for a long time – nursing and teaching, for example – have generally led the way in introducing the flexibility needed to allow women a family and a successful career progression. There is no logical reason why this flexibility will not work in more male-dominated sectors such as tech or engineering. And this comes neatly onto the second main argument proposed by the gender gap apologists: women tend to choose professions which pay less. Aged care workers are a particularly egregious example of this, often getting little more than minimum wage for what is a vital job as our population ages and sickens. The classic response to this is that the market decides at what level different sectors are paid, and that we should never tamper with that.

Dental hygiene and career advice all in one. Outstanding.

Something similar was said to working-class men in the 1920s and 30s who, when they asked for something a little more than their meagre pittances for going down mines and building bridges, were told that they could only be paid what the market was prepared to pay. They formed unions, told the market to get stuffed, and won many battles over fairer pay. Some of the more successful unions in NZ today represent sectors where many of the workers are women, particularly as service jobs predominate over more labour-intensive work.

I’m not suggesting any changes in policy or legislation as a remedy. There’s no need. And here is the rub of the matter. Girls and young women continue to outperform boys at all secondary school levels and in tertiary qualifications, except for the most able and motivated boys; numerous professions – law, medicine, accounting – are now seeing many more women than men at a junior level. Women from the poorest 20% of backgrounds are four times more likely to go on to university than their male counterparts. This is a tide which even the most recalcitrant dinosaur cannot hold back.

“What are you doing, dear? Cooking? How clever of you!”

The long term challenges are not faced by women, but by men. Comparisons of the lot of working women in 1960, 1980 and today confirm that the brittle glass ceiling will get smashed, eventually. I’m only wondering when we will look back on all this and laugh, in the same way that those who resisted universal suffrage in 1893 were eventually laughed at for their utterly spurious reasons (“it might harm women’s mental health” is my favourite). In the meantime, feverish talk of feminazi conspiracies and radical emasculation is of no help to boys and men who do not deserve to be drawn into an unnecessary ‘debate’ about whether they should feel guilty, inferior or superior. We have every right to embrace our own identity and masculinity free of the tiresome chains that inequality shackles both sexes to.

Uber ‘heartless’ for raising prices when demand is high

Irate and hungover Uber customers have taken to social media to complain about Uber’s practice of hiking fares during the peak demand period of New Year’s Eve.

Liz Gruntled, of Matamata, was shocked to find that her trip home had cost her an eye-watering $200. “I’d never used Uber before and I won’t be doing it again in a hurry. We’d all had such a wonderful night out, and there must have been dozens of us, pissed, all wanting a taxi home at the same time. Why they had to spoil it and charge an extortionate amount is beyond me. They showed no customer loyalty whatsoever. I’ll be writing to my local councillor.”

Regular Uber user Brent Mathsphobe, of Lower Hutt, said he was disgusted that his ride home, which normally cost just $20, had rocketed to $80. “They sent me a message saying that there was a price surge of 4x, so it was pretty gut-wrenching to discover that the fare had gone from 20 bucks to 80 bucks,” fumed Brent. “I mean, how do they work that out? It’s outrageous!”

Uber spokesperson Steve Smug shrugged wearily when these objections were put to him: “It’s disappointing, but we obviously made a mistake in offering a rational economic pricing model to New Zealand consumers. We did put out lots of ads warning of likely surges at New Year’s Eve, with a helpful guide as to when the surge might be less severe, but we still have a lot of work to do on educating our customers.”

Auckland councillor Peter Bandwagon, a former honorary chairman of the Taxi Federation, was quick to make some political capital. “This negatively affects the poorest and most vulnerable of my constituents, who can ill afford these exorbitant rates,” he thundered. “In this time of worsening child poverty, I seriously wonder how those greedy thugs at Uber can sleep at night.”

Channelling the spirit of Ned Ludd

Joking aside, Happy New Year! I was hoping for the fount of human idiocy to run a little slower in 2016, so it was rather crushing to find such frenzied and febrile internet frothing as early as January 1st. I hope to address some of the misgivings people may have about Uber, and perhaps even about the wider internet revolution / sharing economy, if I can. Critically, there is a government consultation paper out looking for submissions on what changes need to be made (if any) to the private hire and taxi industry, which will try to pour cold water on the growing stoush between Uber and NZ taxi operators.

As a convert and fan, I will lay down my reasons for supporting Uber, which are far more than just the significantly cheaper price, and point out the obvious pitfalls – no system is perfect. Uber essentially offers a demand-driven pricing system (like peak and off-peak), which means they are usually as much as 50% of the cost of, say, Wellington Combined Taxis. Surges reflect high demand and fewer available drivers (typically after midnight, and a little earlier at night at the weekend), but the surge is usually 1.5x or 2x, bringing the cost roughly back up to what it would be with a Combined taxi.

Very large surges are rare, and usually confined to major dates such as New Year’s Eve – I’ll warn fellow Wellingtonians now that the surge after 10pm on the second day of the Sevens could be pretty pricey, though perhaps not if ticket sales remain sluggish.

My other reasons are primarily the convenience and added safety which the app’s impressive technology confers, and it is amusing that it is on these fairly spurious grounds that taxi operators are mounting their attack. The installation of in-taxi cameras was made mandatory to improve driver and passenger safety. At about $3000 to purchase and install these were not cheap, and resisted by many in the industry. They are understandably livid now that a smartphone app allows you to summon a taxi, providing you with the driver’s name, rego and photo, while Uber has your details and credit card details.

You have to rate the driver’s service before you can order your next one. And if you order one and are too boozed to remember or keep the driver waiting too long, you are ‘fined’ $5 which goes to the driver. The GPS tracking even allows you to put a drunk friend in an Uber car and follow the route home so you know they have arrived at their destination safely. A parent could send an Uber to a school to pick up a child in an emergency and follow their progress right back to their front door. If intoxicated blokes can avoid street fights and intoxicated women can remain in the relative safety of the pub, because waiting around outside at taxi ranks or bus stops becomes a thing of the past, isn’t that progress?

No more drunkenly fumbling for cash at the end of the ride. Other drunken taxi fumbling may occasionally occur, however…

OK, so that may all be good for the consumer, but what about the poor drivers? Well, after canvassing the opinions of Uber drivers en route, all of whom were quite willing to discuss it, I can provide the anecdotal but still genuine-sounding feedback that all were strongly in favour. One woman driver said that she used to be a driver for [name hidden] Wellington operator, but felt Uber offered ‘much more career potential’ for her. Without the nonsense of licences and other built-in costs that made for a high barrier to entry, she made more per kilometre from Uber clients. The app also made getting fares an entirely level playing field. She said that with her old company, only a favoured few would get the airport customers, and they would be expected to bring back a bucket of KFC to the HQ booking operator as a reward!

Interestingly, in San Francisco, where the Uber revolution really began in earnest, it was not a loss of passengers which sent one taxi company into liquidation, but a lack of drivers. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, most drivers simply abandoned their traditional operators and registered with Uber. Indeed, many Wellington Uber drivers admitted to me that they also worked for Combined or other operators as well.

Of the five options on the table, the government favours Option 3 or Option 4. Broadly these options increase the burden of regulation on Uber and lessen those on traditional taxi companies – a predictable Nat compromise fudge between the free-for-all preferred by Uber and requiring Uber to meet the current stringent rules for taxis preferred by, er, Combined and co, which would probably have meant the demise of Uber. Uber are grumbling, but I reckon they can adapt their service and app to meet most of the new restrictions, such as logging all drives, and providing photo ID of drivers and registered passengers. The Federation of Taxi Drivers is grumpy that cameras will not be essential if these criteria are met, but no legislation should stand in the way of progress through technology.

So, I am warmly optimistic about the medium term. Customers will have a choice between a demand-driven variable pricing model, and a more traditional socialised system where fares are kept at the same rate at all times. And kudos to those operators who have introduced their own smartphone facility.

However, only one app will triumph – it’s always the way. And that will be Uber, which is a leaner outfit with global economies of scale. If that means benefits for consumers and most ordinary drivers provided they switch, but sounds the death knell of established, overhead-heavy taxi cartels, then it’s probably a broadly good economic outcome. Local government will also have to adapt to the loss of revenue from issuing taxi licences too. Still, I don’t believe that Uber is the cuddly gang of progressive revolutionistas they make out to be. They have some interesting global tax structures, and as for their vaunt of creating jobs, they are aiming to replace all of their drivers with driverless cars, although I’m sure the taxi operators would do that too, if they were still around and able to.

The future is no longer garlic bread, it’s this…

It has been suggested that ride-hailing and ride-sharing could become so cheap, and in electric cars, that hardly anyone will own their own gas-guzzling car any more or need to travel by public transport. Given that most family cars are used just 4% of the time on average, and that some 30% of urban traffic is caused just by people crawling around town looking for somewhere to bloody park, maybe these developments will be more utopian than dystopian.

And I’m sure David Bowie wouldn’t have flinched at the future hurtling towards us – R.I.P.