The Labour-New Zealand First coalition is pursuing a bold course of nation-building, tackling the invisible deficits that too many New Zealand communities continue to face, especially in remote areas. There is no reason why it cannot be a successful and consequential government but if, however, the focus is less on building stuff than banning stuff, the public sentiment will quickly turn sour.
Government investment in New Zealand’s struggling rural and regional communities comes almost exclusively in the form of incremental cash payments designed to keep families from starving. But when it comes to the kind of structural reforms necessary to change the fundamentals — to upgrade infrastructure, be it roads or Internet access, as well as improve job and educational opportunities — political leaders on both sides of the aisle have come up short. Not just short of money, although that too. Most critically, what’s been lacking is fresh thinking and new ideas.
National were stuck on auto-pilot, enjoying the view from the cockpit. Meanwhile, for Labour, policy innovation too often took a backseat to short-term political imperatives. Perhaps for good reason, the party also feels vulnerable to attacks on its fiscal credibility, and is reluctant to sign up to too many big ticket infrastructure projects as a result. It’s my hope and belief that New Zealand First’s presence in the Cabinet will embolden them to abandon risk-averse incrementalism for an ambitious programme of investment and reform.
As long as the welfare state picks up the tab, why bother with the tough slog of reform? The new government must shake off this bipartisan complacency in recognition that New Zealand can only hope to reach our potential when all engines are firing.
If the Ardern government sets about rebuilding long-neglected corners of the country with the scale of investment necessary, it can transform the lives of those households and communities long overlooked by both major parties. That requires much more than poverty alleviation or building “warm, dry homes”. It means upskilling a generation to make the most of a fast-changing economy; attracting new businesses and industries to neglected regions; improving connectivity, roads, public transport networks, as well as access to quality health and childcare; and tackling the scourge of intergenerational welfare dependency. It also means adopting an innovative and flexible approach to the provision of schooling in areas where educational outcomes, especially among Māori, put us to shame. If Labour adopts a rigid adherence to a failing status quo, it’s those kids, families and communities who will pay the price.
Job-creating businesses cannot square their desire to invest in remote parts of New Zealand with the reality on the ground. They encounter substandard infrastructure and a labour force often hopelessly ill-equipped for the modern workplace. For policy-makers in Wellington, or merchant bankers in Auckland, it’s a cinch to ignore. It’s a classic case of “out of sight, out of mind”, perhaps no better illustrated than by the ease with which we have come to accept the emergence of “zombie towns”. As long as the welfare state picks up the tab, why bother with the tough slog of reform? The new government must shake off this bipartisan complacency in recognition that New Zealand can only hope to reach our potential when all engines are firing.
Persistent social and economic problems are more than a stain on our reputation as a nation; they are a drag on our prosperity.
We’ve heard a lot in recent times about the unequal distribution of wealth, and for good reason. Statistics New Zealand, in June 2016, found that the richest 10 percent of Kiwis control half of the country’s wealth. More shockingly, the poorest 40 percent own just three percent — that’s more than 600,000 Kiwi households making do on a pittance. Is there anyone outside the steel and glass high-rises of high finance who finds that acceptable? For most Kiwis, this disparity confirms what we’ve already sensed between the haves and the have nots over several decades. It’s seriously out of kilter for a nation that prides itself on our egalitarian values.
With New Zealand First at her side, Jacinda Ardern has the best chance in a generation to return Labour to its nation-building roots.
However much past governments have dropped the ball, we need to focus on how to stem and reverse this fast-moving tide towards a two track economy — one for the super-rich; the other for those trapped in struggler’s gully, condemned to casual work, a fingernail away from yet another Baycorp letter or a dodgy high-interest personal loan.
There are other manifestations of inequality at work, most glaringly the overwhelming focus on Auckland, attracting the lion’s share of infrastructure investment, skilled migration and population growth as Kiwis head there from depressed regions. This Auckland-centric approach is another bipartisan phenomenon that this government shouldn’t hesitate to jettison. Boosting regional economies will not only have the effect of creating jobs and expanding prosperity outside of the main cities, it will help alleviate population growth and congestion in Auckland.
With New Zealand First at her side, Jacinda Ardern has the best chance in a generation to return Labour to its nation-building roots. Cautious incrementalism won’t cut it. Aside from the policy payoffs, not to mention the improvement to the lives of families and whole communities, a bold approach to regional economic development could become this government’s enduring legacy — and the key to its reelection.