Tunnel Collapses. Good Call Minister!

hollyfordAs you may be aware, Minister of Conservation Nick Smith this week delivered his decision on whether or not to grant a concession to Milford Dart Limited for construction of an eleven kilometre, one-way bus tunnel between the Dart Valley and Milford Sound. One has to sympathise with the Minister who frequently has to make such rulings and whose decisions are not always popular.

However, it beggars belief how such a ridiculous proposition even got as far as the Minister’s desk in the first place. Proponents of the tunnel who energetically cite how it will reduce travel times to and from Milford Sound seem to have missed the point. Tourists come to enjoy New Zealand’s scenery, not to sit in a dark tunnel. Others have championed how the plan will bring new economic life to the region – when in fact it is likely to kill small towns like Te Anau that rely on passing traffic. Milford Sound itself is physically constrained and simply cannot grow any more, so that argument also falls flat.

Smith used some sound reasoning as to why he declined the project. Uppermost in his mind seems to have been concerns about exactly where millions of tonnes of earth would be deposited after it was dug from the tunnel and that it was not consistent with the park management plan. Even ignoring the fact that the economics of the venture don’t actually stack up; there are much more important, but less tangible, reasons for filing the plan in the waste paper bin.

Despoiling our greatest national park (and world heritage area) for highly questionable commercial gain, would simply be a crime against all New Zealanders. We should keep our special places intact. Good call Mr Smith and deep shame on Tipene O’Regan and his fellow directors of Milford Dart who, given their connections, you’d think might have had more respect for the intrinsic value of a relatively untouched region.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

 

 

It’s Life Jim…

Bernard Hickey’s curious opinion piece in the Herald this week reminded me of a famous quip from Star Trek. “It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.” Normally I enjoy Hickey’s rants, because he frequently questions the boring, unimaginative style of economic management and fiscal policy that we currently have to endure in New Zealand. The new Reserve Bank governor shows little sign of demonstrating any more initiative than the previous incumbent, so it’s important that the media stand up and heckle occasionally. But I’m going to call out Hickey on his stance regarding Auckland’s housing crisis, which sits a world apart from the situation across rest of New Zealand.

Advocating for high rise, in-fill housing in central Auckland is a bit like shooting the goose that laid the golden egg. The lack of housing in the region is because large numbers of  economic migrants have been increasingly attracted to Auckland due to it’s unique lifestyle and are arriving at a faster rate than can be accomodated at a time of low investment in housing. However, if the Auckland CBD is transformed into downtown Kowloon, with row upon row of identical, tasteless concrete apartments, the city will presumably become somewhat less attractive to migrants intent on escaping the very same kind of environment. There is a more obvious solution.

Even us Wellingtonians understand that Auckland is (currently) the economic centre of gravity for New Zealand and we certainly endorse the assistance provided as Christchurch struggles to rebuild. Furthermore, with most of the present government senior cabinet members originating from either Auckland or Christchurch regions, it’s been clear for some time where the chief investment focus lies. In the meantime Wellington is languishing with one of the lowest economic growth rates of any region, despite its diverse economic base.

Business activity here in our region powerfully leverages a creative workforce and increasingly invigorates high value, knowledge based export businesses. Provincial areas such as Northland, Gisborne and Wanganui have mild climates and vast tracts of land available, yet are also struggling. Other areas such as Manawatu and Taranaki have held their own, thanks to the dairy boom. But the economic benefits of those returns are no longer shared throughout the community, because of the increasing trend towards corporate farming and centralised processing. What can be done to redress this imbalance?

Surely, if Auckland is bursting at the seams and Christchurch is still awaiting re-building, would it not make sense to actively redirect economic investment and migration to less favoured provincial areas, where it could do most good? Or is that too obvious to contemplate?

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

National Standards: The Great March To Mediocrity

The principal at my twelve year old son’s school wrote to parents this week illuminating her media reported comments in relation to the recently published “league tables” of school performance under the government’s misguided “National Standards” programme. Whilst generally supporting the inclusion of a standards based system within the school, the nationwide implementation of the programme has not been uniform, she explained. Consequently output data should not be regarded as reliable, because of differences in methodology across the country. That’s a diplomatic position to adopt, when you have a gun to your head.

Publishing “league tables” is a self-defeating exercise, I’m sure you will agree. But the media never lets facts get in the way of a good headline. There’s something about the way this whole issue has unfolded that makes me wonder what the real agenda is here. Even the title “national standards” is laced with threatening overtones, suggesting a march towards conformity and mindless mediocrity. But there is seemingly very little us concerned parents can do about it now. Typically, the media have chosen not to focus on the more important sociological questions around this issue. I guess teachers and principals just have to suck it up as well, even though many must find the foundational political ideology abhorrent.

The principal’s comments confirm what most intelligent observers already knew. National “standards” (or whatever variant is being used) are entirely subjective and can only possibly give a very approximate indication of where a child sits in relation to his peers. Who dreams this stuff up? Furthermore, because the focus seems to be on “meeting the standard”, rather than excelling, the entire exercise can only ever lead to academic mediocrity. This seems entirely contrary to fulfilling aspirations for better outcomes in key areas such as mathematics and sciences, which will underpin New Zealand’s economic development in the future.

I’m confident my child will succeed in spite of the vast amount of resources being wasted on this folly, so I’m not particularly concerned by what position the school takes. To be quite honest, I think we should instead be paying more attention to nurturing our childrens’ broader social, physical and intellectual development at this age, rather than trying to create a socially divisive and wholly artificial benchmark.

Yes, we parents are sitting up in class and paying attention. Will it make any difference now? Probably not. Even if there is a change of government next year, I doubt that National Standards will be entirely rolled back. Mandarins within the Ministry will see to that. Perhaps we should instead focus our energies on the really big battle looming, as foreshadowed by the merger plans outlined for schools in Christchurch. My child is the third generation in our family to proudly attend an intermediate school. I hope he won’t be the last.

Old Industries Are The Pits

Railways, coal mining and industrial scale manufacturing were all economic activities that had their origins in the 19th Century. This week has not been a good one for anyone employed in those businesses in New Zealand, with widespread redundancies having been announced. The reasons for the collapse of these industries differ, but they share the historical hallmarks of “creative destruction” as expounded by Austrian economist Schumpeter.

Schumpeter was remarkably prescient for a man of his time. Drawing upon the political organisational theories of both Marx and Weber he concluded that innovation was the primary driver of economic change and that every industry was subject to a cycle of emergence, ascendance and decay. He controversially proposed that democracy could never truly empower the ordinary citizen because the electorate were largely ill-informed or ignorant. His predictions that social democratic governments would emerge in the West (rather than socialist revolution) have largely come true.

None of this will be of any consolation to our miners, factory workers and railway engineers. But it does underline precisely why we need to be moving up the value chain through exporting our knowledge rather than relying upon filthy, dangerous and extractive commodity based industries. After more than a decade talking about it, the penny has finally dropped and the government is now attempting to reorganise commercialisation of publicly funded research and has been increasing the investment in research, science and technology. Bullish talk by government ministers about opening up more public land for mineral exploitation also seems to have faded for the time being. That’s why I spend a lot of my time promoting and supporting knowledge based entrepreneurship and emerging technologies and industries.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Aussie Rules?

My annual escape to the West Island always provides plenty of food for thought and this visit has been no exception. Australia is a nation of rule makers, a trait complicated by the fact that there are both federal laws and those laid down by state governments – and they sometimes do not align comfortably.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is under seige at present after ushering in new taxation regimes aimed at redressing both climate change and mineral exploitation rights. The Minerals Resource Rent Tax takes a small percentage of the billions of dollars of profits generated from mineral extraction and redirects it towards infrastructure projects and social needs. It’s a brave effort in wealth redistribution by a government with a wafer thin parliamentary majority. The new Carbon Tax creates an impost on the 500 largest polluters in the “Lucky Country” and will largely be passed on to consumers, although it will be rebalanced to a large degree by tax reductions for small business and low income earners.

In a bizarre move, the Queensland State government is in the process of taking the federal government to court, to oppose the resource tax. Queensland has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the infrastructure spend up that has helped keep the Australian economy bouyant throughout the GFC. The Sunshine State is brimming over with new roads, bridges and public amenities such as the $2 billion regional hospital construction about to get underway north of Brisbane.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is reveling in the negative media attention, with an election looming next year however. It’s payback time after being narrowly defeated at the polls last time around and therein lies the worry. Abbott is a conservative, former Catholic seminary student turned political hack, famous for rolling his predecessor in protest against his own party supporting a carbon emissions trading scheme. Abbott has a short fuse and a penchant for firing up the red-neck right. He recently called foreign asylum seeking boat people “un-Christian” for immigrant queue jumping and wants the Navy to turn back boats on the high seas by force ( a position that reportedly horrifies senior military analysts). His latest gaffe was to elevate the New Zealand government as a shining example of economic management, when all our performance indicators in fact remain below that of Australia’s.

It remains to be seen who will be making Aussie’s rules after the election in 2013. Whatever the outcome, we should take note of Gillard’s formula for addressing social and environmental concerns in the context of Australia’s windfall from the minerals boom. Our own government has recently backed away from acting likewise in terms of our wealth-creating but polluting commodity based primary industries. Perhaps we should review that stance in light of Australia’s approach.

Shifting The Economic Goalposts

Economist Brian Gaynor’s recent article on why we will never “catch up” to Australia was another sobering reminder of the hard road that New Zealand has ahead. Invoking a sporting analogy by beating Australia may be a popular rally to arms, but it focuses public attention on completely the wrong set of goalposts.

Another sobering occasion was when we sadly learned of the passing of Sir Paul Callaghan, one of New Zealand’s most passionate science communicators and technology entrepreneurs. Sir Paul lived every moment and notably even turned his cancer treatment regime into an experiment. More importantly he was one of the most ardent promoters of science and technology commercialisation as a means of growing New Zealand’s economy.

“Sir Paul was a true public intellectual who earned the respect of everyone, including those who disagreed with him”, stated the government’s sternly worded Ministerial press release reporting news of Sir Paul’s death. Curiously, outside of Cabinet, I can’t name a single (intelligent) person who actually disagreed with his thesis that New Zealand urgently needs to ramp up economic growth through more investment in research, science and technology commercialisation, rather than continuing with an over-reliance on flogging unprocessed, environmentally unsustainable dairy commodities to the world.

To its credit, the government has finally moved to increase research funding and there are more frequent mutterings along the lines of “doing something” about uncovering intellectual property locked up within our many publicly funded institutions. But those of us who looked on frustrated over the last decade as the “Knowledge Wave” withered on the vine, are becoming more and more concerned that the opportunity to fully promote science and technology as an economic driver is disappearing.

Beyond pumping more cash into research, we need a huge cultural shift involving both governmental agencies and the public mindset. As clean-tech entrepreneur Nick Gerritsen stated at a recent seminar, “we need more millionaire scientists and fewer millionaire sportsmen”. With the loss of Professor Callaghan, I’m left wondering who will be brave enough to pick up the mantle.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

Attacks On Economic Agency Unfair

Grow Wellington may have failed to trumpet its successes loudly enough, but it doesn’t deserve the criticism that is currently being heaped upon it as the seriously flawed Wellington regional economic strategy (WRS) has undergone review. The economic development agency has done a relatively good job of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear within a recessionary environment in which the central government focus has been on other parts of the country.

It beggars belief that plans are afoot to abscond with $600K of the agency’s annual budget to fund the WRS office to “administer” the strategy. It’s not clear how creating another layer of bureaucracy will enhance the region’s economic performance however. Past complaints by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce demonstrate a deep ignorance of the outstanding network building and facilitation work that Grow Wellington has undertaken and the cheap attacks look like nothing more than a desperate attempt by the Chamber to remain relevant.

Last year’s Rugby World Cup was a pleasant distraction for some, but an economic fizzer for the region overall, as predicted by every study looking at the long term value of such large scale events. But sound academic research and global best practice has never been the basis for the regional economic strategy, a document that was prepared by local management consultants. At no time did the strategy charge Grow Wellington with researching and advocating on regional infrastructure and accordingly the organisation does not employ researchers or economists. One would have thought this was in fact the Chamber’s role, hence their criticism should be directed inwards.

Wellington needs better public transport, an infusion of entrepreneurial culture plus more and ongoing investment into productive and high value parts of the economy, including facilitating foreign capital. On the other side of the ledger, we also need to preserve the quality of life that we currently enjoy because this is the basis for skilled migrant attraction. Look around – at least half of the technology start-ups in the region have been created by recent arrivals. That is an economic success story that should be told far more often.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

Mega Takedown

The Coatesville police raid and subsequent removal of the MegaUpload site should serve as a reminder to us all about how powerful governments and corporations now intend to exercise increasing control of the wild west known as the Internet, through both new legislation and legal prosecutions. It would also be foolish to continue assuming that tiny, remote New Zealand is immune from the growing American political appetite for punishing the alleged purveyors (and consumers) of pirated material.

Irrespective of what you think about Mr Dotcom and the legitimacy of his business, it’s important that the matter be given due process through the Courts and that we do not prejudge the outcome or bow unthinkingly to the will of foreign governments. There are powerful forces at work as witnessed recently with the U.S. senate coming under heavy lobbying pressure from the entertainment industry.

It’s clear that our government want to be cooperative, especially with increasingly frequent connections being made between favourable trade outcomes and the protection of intellectual property rights for American companies. What better place to exercise a show of force than in a small, compliant island state in the south-west Pacific. Why else would such an over-the-top para-military style operation be permitted in the Prime Minister’s own electorate on an individual who had recently received approval for New Zealand residency? It’s astounding.

The SOPA debate and the moral panic around piracy in the United States has largely arisen because of the ongoing failure of the media and entertainment industry to innovate its distribution channels rapidly enough. The rise of file sharing and related sites is simply a symptom of that failure in the marketplace. Without question, creative individuals deserve to be fairly remunerated for their efforts and creative industries should be allowed to make a profit, but not at the expense of Internet freedom.

Police raids and draconian legislation are ultimately more likely to inflame than to discourage. An intolerant approach towards content sharing enterprises in general may also have unintended consequences for “law abiding” users caught up in crackdowns. Perhaps the hackers and hosters should be invited to provide a technological solution to the digital creative sector that everyone can live with?

 

The Day After

On Sunday we woke up to – well pretty much the same flavour of government we had the day before, thanks to voter apathy and one or two quirks of fate. Although Prime Minister Key has predictably adopted the position of “business as usual”, the next three years look anything but usual.

Saturday’s election outcome was fairly consistent with what the polls had been predicting in the week prior. But the returning National government will need to tread warily and not drift too far right. With 48% backing from two thirds of the enrolled electorate meaning only 32% of the adult population has their support. If parties on the Left can better galvanise voters in 2014, the outcome may be very different.

There was some good news in that potentially disruptive, extremist political parties ACT and Mana had their support base obliterated. The one exception was Epsom where greed and stupidity seems to have prevailed. Even the Labour voters in that electorate wasted the opportunity to excise their controversial and divisive former mayor. It may be a moot point, with the ACT party imploding on election night and Banks set to become a National minister in all but name.

The other piece of good news was that the Greens achieved their goal of topping 10% in party votes. An astounding effort after intelligently repositioning themselves over the previous 18 months since the departure of some of their looney fringe elements. The Greens deserved these gains and I hope Key will continue the relationship which has already seen the adoption of some of their more sensible policies. The Greens were also the party that proposed a clean technology fund for New Zealand companies in their manifesto and who have made a commitment to clean up our cow shit infected waterways.

It’s clear that Europe isn’t out of the economic woods yet and China may be on the verge of deflating. A steady hand will be needed on the tiller in the medium term. National would do well to form an inclusive government that sets a cooperative tone for the challenges that lie ahead.

100+ Rewiring The Productive Economy

We live in interesting times. Last month I attended a seminar looking at productivity in the New Zealand economy and how we can improve. The most overwhelming aspect of the event however was that most of the attendees were white, male and aged 50 or older. Furthermore, much of the focus was on making changes to macroeconomic settings, rather than making an attitudinal shift. If we are to address this issue in a meaningful way we need to engage with a far broader church, including politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and investors from across the spectrum who are committed to change – not just economists.

With our over-dependence on high volume, low value food commodities to generate income and an over-investment in non productive assets such as property, we have seen per capita income dropping rapidly over the last decade. The flow-on effect has been a return to net outwards migration at levels unseen in the last thirty years. New Zealand is close to entering a death spiral, in terms of an inability to pay for social services in the future, if we don’t fix this right now! Within the next thirty years we will reach a tipping point at which a minority of the population is working to support the dependent majority.

Each speaker at the seminar was tasked with presenting a simple, yet radical idea that could move the goalposts on productivity, in an effort to stem the flow of emigrants and ensure we can fund our future. Some of the ideas were downright batty, but at least people were thinking and talking – which is more than successive governments have achieved so far. In fact, perhaps the single biggest issue is leadership inaction in the face of political expediency. It will take more than speeches and a cup of tea to solve these problems. So here’s my ten cents worth.

It seems we can easily find $10 million to build a temporary booze hall for rugby patrons on Auckland’s waterfront, yet we continue to struggle to provide a coordinated approach to identifying and commercialising world class science in New Zealand. If the government lacks the gumption to look beyond a three year electoral cycle, then the private sector must take a stronger leadership position on the matter.

There’s plenty of cash sloshing around in superannuation funds, but if it means accessing foreign capital and connections to get on with the job, so be it. Endeavour capital see the opportunity, why not others? We should aim for 100+ Lanzatech or Endace type companies. That requires making project opportunities transparent and going big, whilst retaining a NZ Inc. stake in the intellectual property. It means identifying top talent to lead commercialisation. It will also require a complete change of mindset in some of the more conservative knowledge silos around the country.