In an interview for Unlimited Magazine, physicist and technology entrepreneur Paul Callaghan recounts meeting Prime Minister John Key at a business function. The PM had just stepped off the speaker’s podium where he had been talking up agriculture and tourism and expressing scepticism about the value of New Zealand’s technology sector to the economy. If that is the kind of leadership we are faced with, then I fear that the devaluation of our economic potential will continue unabated.
And before I’m accused over being overly harsh, let’s just look at this government’s track record since taking office well over six months ago:
- Research & development tax credit reduced then cut altogether.
- Fast Forward programme wiped and replaced with identical project with less funding.
- I.T. worker redundancies from government agencies.
- Negligible budget increase to RS&T vote.
- Major cuts to tertiary education funding.
- NZ Innovation Centre loses $15M in funding.
- Reported $100M net loss to market development assistance programmes for exporters.
To be fair, we all knew that the Budget needed to be tough – even if Key and English can’t agree exactly why. Certainly borrowing to fund superannuation and tax cuts doesn’t make good fiscal sense; but neither does knee-capping your research, science and technology capability. To its credit, the government did provide additional resources to the Marsden Fund and a one-off operational grant to REANNZ the high speed research network. In the latter case, they obviously could not be seen to allow the research network to fail, whilst at the same time pouring billions into digging trenches for a brand new domestic network for which a proper economic business case has yet to be made.
Investing in and commercialising research will never be cheaper than today and you can be sure that our competitors in America and Europe are continuing to do it. I’ve said it before – when I look around town, it is the businesses that have invested in developing new technology that are still growing. It seems like the government is signalling it wishes to play less of a role in this arena. Dairy commodity prices are dropping again, so too are visitor numbers. The PM’s support for agriculture and tourism is no doubt uplifting for the cow-shit and candyfloss brigades, but it does little to bolster our GDP per capita output in the long term.