Has Britain Gone Mad?

cowThe United Kingdom seems to have become infected with another case of “mad cow” disease, if the events of the past few weeks are any indication. Prime Minister-elect Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson to the post of Foreign Secretary seems designed to maximise offense to Britain’s neighbours, already reeling from the extraordinary Brexit campaign, of which Johnson was himself a prominent supporter.

May’s appointment of Johnson should be no surprise however. Three days into the job, she has already been accused of pandering and being inconsistent in her position on foreign investment, amongst other issues. The Boris appointment is either an awkward misjudgement or a clever ploy to undermine the entire Brexit process – which she quietly opposed during her time as a senior cabinet minister.

The new Prime Minister also seems in no hurry to start the exit negotiations and who can blame her. The Brexit debacle has plunged the UK into it’s biggest political and economic crisis since World War Two, say some commentators. Furthermore the exit vote was not exactly a landslide. There might yet be more water to flow under the Euro bridge as Britain stares down the barrel of an estimated 5-10 year recession as the full implications of Brexit take hold.

In a world of uncertainty, now is not the time for isolationism and petty parochialism. Britain has benefited enormously from its previously close relationship with the Continent, but the stayer camp failed to make this case sufficiently strongly. May was complicit in this, in her efforts to appease all sides and pave the way for her own career development. That in itself is a clear illustration of why the British government is failing its people at present. The vested self-interest of a minority of over-puffed political personalities has overcome common sense.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Twitter Tweaks

twit2There’s no doubting that, in terms of social impact, Twitter has been a shining beacon of light in a world of largely vacuous and self-absorbed social media content. Therein lies its strength. But considering that the company has received over $1 billion in venture funding since 2007, you would think they might have settled upon a viable business model by now.

Legions of internet commentators have already weighed in on whether or not Twitter can ever salvage a real business from its existing offering. I hope they can. Twitter is my preferred outlet for social media content, for a number of good reasons. It allows me to receive, share and comment on high value content whilst retaining a degree of privacy that is not offered by other services.

But a recent article in Inc illustrates that Twitter has a problem of perception. At present it is not clear to potential new users whether or not Twitter will evolve into anything other than a “stream of consciousness”. So there might be a finite limit to how far Twitter can grow. That’s not a problem for me in the least, but it will be a problem for Twitter’s investors. There is a certain irony however in suggesting that in order to innovate, grow and survive, Twitter must become like the other big platforms. Arguably Twitter already has many platform features. It connects content creators with consumers and allows a certain amount of freedom in terms of user curation. So the next step might involve further reducing the friction for users to find the best content.

Twitter may be smaller than other social media services, but it packs a lot more more punch. Twitter users tend to be better educated, more affluent and (importantly for advertisers) three times more likely to follow their favourite brands online. Pundits complain that the current round of Twitter tweaks will not be enough. But I tend to disagree. You don’t turn around over 300 million users in a single day. Transformative change for the Twitter’s business model is necessary, but will take time. Experimentation and testing are part of that process.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

No Public Funding For Runway White Elephant Please

777lotrThe debate over whether or not public money should be invested in the extension of Wellington International Airport’s (WIAL) runway is starting to heat up. Despite project studies only being released to the public this week, city councils across the region have already indicated they will provide financial support towards the $330 million cost. At present central government has said it will not support and some local body councillors are already starting to feel uneasy about the overall proposal.

The Wellington City Council (minority shareholder in the airport), Wellington Chamber of Commerce and WIAL have been enthusiastically promoting the supposed “economic benefits” of the project. But the real reason the extension is needed is because the current length is sub-standard even for short-haul jet operations. WIAL is essentially asking taxpayers and ratepayers to co-fund capital works. Given that WIAL parent company Infratil earned a staggering $453 million last year and reportedly has a $1 billion war chest, why are public funds needed at all? Surely WIAL can make it’s own business case and access funding itself?

Adding 300 metres to the runway will not make it safe for wide-body aircraft.  “Long haul” flights are not coming to Wellington any time soon and here’s why. Firstly, medium haul, mid sized airliners are actually being phased out across the Asia-Pacific region as we speak. My understanding is that the last Qantas 767 has already gone and Air NZ has a small number remaining with limited lifespans. Asian airlines no longer operate these types. Air Asia and Jetstar withdrew A330s from Christchurch and Auckland, because they could not make a profit. In any event, an A330 would not be able to operate fully laden, even from an extended runway. Truly “long haul” aircraft such as A380, A340 and B777 are unlikely to be operated because of weight and size limitations.

The 787 Dreamliner is often touted as the saviour of long thin air routes. Again, it will not be possible to economically operate this aircraft out of WLG, even with a longer runway. Extending the runway will not remove the nearby hills. Aircraft take-off restrictions are governed by the climb performance under instrument flight conditions with a failed engine at the takeoff point. Long haul operations (10-16 hours) require huge fuel loads and substantial take-off weights. Take-off performance is a function of aircraft weight, engine power and ambient conditions, NOT runway length. Aircraft will be payload limited even with the runway extension in place. This is a really important point that most commentators and the media have missed.

There are many other reasons why investing in a runway extension is a bad idea. Not the least of these is that the airlines refuse to commit. You can be sure that Air New Zealand is not going to undermine it’s cosy hub and spoke operation that is based in Auckland and it’s not clear that any Asia or U.S. based airlines are at all interested. Some passengers complain that travel via Auckland or Sydney is onerous. But can you name any city under 500,000 population in North America that has direct air links with London or Hong Kong? Hub and spoke operations are the norm elsewhere in the world. There are many other investments that Wellington can make as a city and a region in order to promote economic development.

Unsurprisingly, there is zero information on the WCC or WIAL websites about the public consultation process. But the media are reporting the following information. There will be three public open days where people can meet one-on-one with the experts who prepared the reports. The open days will be held at Chaffers Dock Function Centre on December 2 from 12pm to 3pm, at SPCA Fever Hospital in Mt Victoria on December 3 from 5pm to 8pm, and at the Brentwood Hotel Conference Centre in Kilbirnie on December 5 from 12pm to 3pm.

Postscript: There is now a dedicated website providing links to information from the consultants who were paid by the project supporters to provide reports. The site also contains information about public presentations and how to make a submission.

Paul Spence is an ardent supporter of regional economic development, a commercial pilot licence holder and a technology sector company director based in Wellington.

Dysfunctional Regional Council Must Go

In case you hadn’t noticed, the public consultation around the proposal to amalgamate local bodies in the Greater Wellington region closes on March 2nd. You could be excused for not knowing, because (much to their shame) the parties concerned have done little to encourage public debate on the topic. The proposal is highly contentious, has huge implications and yet has been so poorly publicised. But the one thing everyone seems to agree upon however is that the highly dysfunctional Wellington Regional Council must be dissolved, whatever happens.

An information guide dated December 2014 finally turned up in my letterbox in mid-February. The pamphlet explains the “draft” proposal put forward by the Local Government Commission for local government amalgamation in the Wellington region and invites public submissions. Drilling down into the commission website, it became apparent that there was not an online form for submission anywhere, but simply an email or postal address. I guess they weren’t expecting many responses. There was no obvious mention of the proposal or submission process on the Wellington City Council website at all. The Wellington Regional Council website does have one page devoted to the topic, including some useful background material, but zero information on how to actually make a submission. In an age of nearly universal access to internet, this is unacceptable and makes me suspicious about transparency around the entire process.

Notwithstanding the obfuscation, there has been a flurry of media activity in recent weeks as it emerged that almost half the Wellington Regional Council elected councillors are having second thoughts as public disquiet has been growing. Even the pro-amalgamation “Chamber of Horrors” have toned down their rhetoric lately, as it became clear that the real bill for amalgamation could be well north of $200 million, if harmonisation of I.T. services were included. In a recent joint statement the business Chambers agree there is a “need for change”, but do not go as far as endorsing the current proposal.

The original suggestion for amalgamation came from Wellington Regional Council itself and is being driven largely by an individual with one eye firmly fixed on the future super-mayor job. This person has a sterling previous track record of successfully promoting unpalatable political agendas and knows the right levers to push to get the job done. But releasing the amalgamation proposal at Christmas, then fronting up to a couple of small debates a week before the doors close simply doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of public engagement.

Ironically, it is the lack of goodwill between the existing regional council and the other councils in the region that has led to this problem in the first place. There are important regional projects such as economic development, roading and water that must be addressed in a co-ordinated way, but the regional council has failed to galvanise and unify the other players in the region. Making a clumsy grab for power must have seemed like the only option. What is really needed is a functional regional council that has the confidence of all the city and district councils and that can play nicely and work collegially on the really important issues that face our region. What we do not need is another Auckland-style unitary authoritary. Why reinvent the wheel at a huge cost to ratepayers?

So it is very clear that the existing Wellington Regional Council members must now step down and that the Local Government Commission must go back to the drawing board and respond with a structure that empowers the regional council, whilst retaining local legitimacy and addressing community needs. With luck, we should see a public referendum on the issue in the future. A prominent WRC councillor once expressed her disdain for democratic processes in the past, when she said “let us hold our noses and vote”. Perhaps ratepayers (and voters) of the Wellington region should follow suit.

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

Catton Furore Points To Painful Reality

The last time I saw Eleanor Catton, she was travelling in a pushchair under the care of her doting father Phillip. Judging by her Dad’s response this week to Sean Plunket’s ill-judged comments, she’s still the apple of his eye. But the acclaimed author has come a long way since then.

Eleanor Catton reportedly made some disparaging comments about the parlous state of intellectualism in New Zealand and alluding to how arts and creative endeavours have suffered at the hands of neo-liberal politicians and their supporters. Plunket’s outburst therefore seems somewhat ironic given that he himself built a career out of freely criticising others, including dissecting the political establishement. Should not Catton be afforded the same privilege?

The most amusing aspect of this affair is that Plunket’s rant simply underlines the point Catton was trying to make. New Zealand has become an intellectual desert where the media’s (and public’s) chief obsessions are cleverly branded sports teams and little else. Furthermore, intellectual debate is reviled and the political discourse revolves largely around economic progress. Unsurprisingly, Catton has consequently shown little interest in being lauded as a daughter of New Zealand as her star ascended on the global stage.

We New Zealanders are an insecure race and are constantly needing to claim celebrities as our own, as if to fulfill our ambitions vicariously in some way. Perhaps that is a function of being a tiny island nation on the edge of the real world. Given the state of the rest of the world, we actually have much to be thankful for, in reality. But in the same way that film maker Peter Jackson succeeded in spite of being based in New Zealand, Catton achieved fame through her own efforts and by the quality of her scholarship and determination, not because she had a New Zealand upbringing or any obligation to our country.

Numerous pundits, including Eleanor Catton herself, have taken to social media to express a variety of viewpoints about this sorry episode. “New Zealand doesn’t invest enough in growing strong and stable institutions to nurture and develop its next generation of leaders, thinkers and creators”, exclaims Mark Rickerby in a brilliant but somewhat pessimistic article in support of Catton. Whilst I agree with many of his points, I’m still hopeful and here’s why.

My teenage son is growing up in a New Zealand where at least half his friends are immigrants or children of immigrants, where fewer and fewer kids are taking up team or contact sports and where traditional media is regarded as largely irrelevant by his peers. It’s simple demographics. Plunket and his conservative, flabby, white, football-loving, bogan mates are right to be worried, their days are numbered.

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

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

 

 

Why The Rugby Sevens Must Go

73099373MM017_SevensRecently the “colourful” Rugby Sevens tournament brought many visitors to our fair city and teams from all over the world to compete. It would all be very uplifting, except that the event has become less about sport and more about partying and getting trashed. Is that the kind of reputation we are trying to build for Wellington?

The party culture around this event reflects the worst elements of our selfish, reckless, binge drinking Kiwi culture, so it seems entirely out of tune with a city in which we are attempting to cultivate higher values such as innovation, creativity and the advancement of knowledge. Supporters of the “Sevens” frequently quote the estimated $16 million in economic returns to the city. Rarely mentioned is the cost of extra policing and the additional burden on emergency medical facilities from an endless tide of drunks and  costumed misfits. In the same way that the Rugby World Cup failed to deliver, the chief beneficiaries of this economic “windfall” only seem to be pub owners and concessionaires selling booze at the stadium venue.

For a growing number of us who are not sports loving extroverts, the Sevens has become an embarrassment and something best avoided. Certainly one does not venture into the central city in the evening unaccompanied, when the event is underway. Even during the daytime, wearing a costume seems to be a licence for intoxicated young men and women to behave in an obnoxious manner that would be unacceptable on any other weekend.

No doubt I will be accused of being petty minded and intolerant. After all, I should be gracious on the occasions I have been verbally abused, had drunks pissing in my driveway and when awoken at 3am by the tuneful refrain of those meandering home. But not standing up against anti-social behaviour is at the foundation of why social problems such as family violence, alcoholism and drink driving persist. I make no apologies for expressing an unpopular viewpoint on this.

 

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.

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.