Prime Minister Helen Clark has often called for New Zealanders to “back themselves” in business with the same enthusiasm that we support our sports teams. But after nine years in charge, Labour seem to have run out of ideas on the economic development front.
To be fair, I agree with the points made by Infometrics economist Chris Worthington in this weekend’s DomPost. Dr Cullen’s boring but fiscally responsible twin planks of repaying government debt and instigating a universal superannuation fund has put the economy in a strong position to weather the global economic storm and cope with future demands on resources from an ageing populace. On the downside, the oft quoted aspirational goals, regarding climbing the OECD ladder, will not be met anytime soon. Equilbrium is the best we can hope for.
I suppose a mediocre economic performance and low growth is better than a meltdown. But our greatest failure has been an inability to put capital to work more productively. There is no shortage of ideas in New Zealand on how to leverage innovation. However we are simply not good enough at attracting capital and executing on those ideas. Even addressing basic infrastructural issues such as broadband and roading seems about as easy as wading through treacle – yet almost everyone agrees that these are urgent issues. We can’t afford to wait until near the end of each election cycle before committing to such projects.
The Labour government had a burst of enthusiasm in 2001 when it backed the Knowledge Wave Conference. A lot of good ideas sprung out of this event and there was initially a great deal of goodwill generated amongst business movers and shakers. The Growth and Innovation Advisory Board (GIAB) was established shortly afterwards with an impressive looking group of influential business people involved. But nary a word has been heard since. The last press release from GIAB itself was in 2005 and a number of promising initiatives such as the ICT Taskforce have been quietly subsumed as attention drifted once again back to the primary sector as our economic saviour.
Lately independent thinktanks and commentators have been attempting to fill the void left by the lack of government leadership. But there is not a coordinated effort. Auckland seems to benefit increasingly from government largesse in terms of technology and innovation programmes at the expense of other regions. Hence the incoming government needs to think seriously about developing an equitable national innovation blueprint that will drive progress on these issues.
So why didn’t Labour propose a Fast Forward styled initiative for the ICT sector for example? Aspirational goals are fine, but if we are to overcome the disadvantages of geographic distance from capital and consumer markets and an over-reliance on tourism and primary exports, we need some radical solutions. We also need the commitment to back ourselves, as the PM often states. Half measures and programmes that only nibble at the edges of the problem simply don’t cut it.
Yes there are competing calls on government budget; but how are we to pay for improving health, education and superannuation in the future if we cannot earn a crust in the world and remain competitive? Now, I don’t think Labour entirely squandered the opportunity during their tenure, but they failed to generate and support a really powerful and vibrant leadership vision for how innovation might strongly underpin economic growth.
The scary part is that the blue squad seem to have even less of a clue on how to go about it. Certainly the prospect of having living fossils like Williamson, English and Brownlee sitting around the Cabinet table is not an appealing one in terms of ideation. Other small nations like Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland and Finland have backed themselves with investment and forward thinking public initiatives on innovation. Why can’t we?