An economic opportunity for New Zealand could be closing rapidly as the world grapples with the pandemic, and business and social impact leaders want the Government to act fast to stay ahead

Auckland’s big economic conference didn’t want to hear from whingers or those looking backwards – but plenty of speakers and attendees worried that after our great start dealing with Covid-19, New Zealand is at risk of blowing that advantage.

It was a recurrent theme through the Auckland’s Future Now gathering of 260 movers and shakers, despite the meeting hearing from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that the country was already moving from the ‘What we don’t want’ phase of the pandemic response to the ‘What we do want’.

Speaker after speaker, panelist after panelist, through Friday’s day-long conference seemed to want a lot more, and faster, from the Government.

The conference brought together community, iwi, local and central government, and business people with technology, creative and investment specialists. It reprised an urgent meeting during the pandemic crisis months of last year.

A series of speakers urged changes to immigration settings to bring in high-skilled and needed workers, high-value investors and a welcome for their capital, to go harder on MIQ spaces for international students and to add bubbles to bubbles in international travel. (Ardern had signalled immigration change is coming, as early as Monday.)

The meeting heard much about the local vaccination response but the prevalent concern was that a window of opportunity for New Zealand to exploit – having kept the virus at bay and restored normal life to a degree that is envied worldwide – would soon close as other countries out-vaccinated us or offered incentives for migrants and investment.

“The Government’s success has created exponential interest in our country,” said the host, Auckland Unlimited chief executive Nick Hill. “Auckland must be at the forefront of efforts to attract investors and entrepreneurs.”

A former chief science advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman kicked off a chorus of calls that without boldness, that opportunity could be squandered.

Sir Peter Gluckman, of Koi Tu, the Centre for Informed Progress, addressing the conference. Photo: Bryan Lowe, Auckland Unlimited

“The window of opportunity for New Zealand to attract talent is evaporating as the developed world becomes vaccinated,” he said in a keynote address. “Many Asian countries are now on the aggressive hunt for that talent. Our Covid-free status was an advantage but that is disappearing. Start-up and scale-up are very different, and scale-up requires globally orientated expertise we are short in.”

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff weighed in early. “There’s a challenge of how to maintain our success – to deliver the opportunities that opened up for us. Other countries are already moving quickly.”

He said Auckland had 60,000 international students in 2019 and that was now “20,000 and that number is declining.” He welcomed the Government decision announced last week to use 400 spaces in Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facilities for more international students. But Goff wants more done: “We need to think laterally for how we can bring more, by thinking laterally about quarantine facilities.”

Ardern was asked during her question and answer session if a recommendation from the same conference last year that expanding capacity by allowing private MIQ facilities be considered, was a goer, but she said: “A lot of our energy should go into using tools and strategies at the border pre-departure to reduce the need for you to use quarantine.

“We’ve not looked at a much larger expanded profile of quarantine because I think the world will start changing before we could do that.”

She was more relaxed about New Zealand’s ongoing appeal for investment from overseas.

“Let’s not overestimate how countries that are vaccinating … how suddenly everything will be back to normal. It simply won’t. Let’s not assume that this is the only time that we will deal with a health threat like Covid-19.”

Jacinda Ardern talks to facilitator Fran O’Sullivan. Photo: Bryan Lowe, Auckland Unlimited.

Investors globally would take a longer view, thinking “If this happens again where will I be best placed to continue to operate my business or services in the future. New Zealand has a rich offering in that regard.”

Her optimism didn’t quell the calls for urgency. The “closing window” analogy peppered contributions.

A moderator of one session, ex Business NZ chief Phil O’Reilly, reckoned “Our Covid halo is slipping”.

Invisible Urban electric charging entrepreneur Nigel Broomhall, said he would hear weekly from contacts in the United States asking if they could come and live here. “That’s one of the challenges. That’s one of the opportunities that’s fading. We’ve got an opportunity but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we’re two islands at the bottom of the world.

Broomhall was interested to hear Ardern say work was underway on how vaccine passports might fit in New Zealand’s reopening. “In the US, everyone we’re working with has been vaccinated. Our place on the world stage, with our response, is starting to fade. If there’s another, double pandemic we are a good place to operate as well.”

Panelists Professor Peter Hunter, Nigel Broomhall, Anna Kominik and Caroline Rainsford, with moderator Phil O’Reilly.  Photo: Bryan Lowe, Auckland Unlimited.

Google’s chief for Australia and New Zealand, Caroline Rainsford, said an earlier idea about perhaps setting up an Australasian centre for research excellence here – “because we had such a unique advantage” was harder now to advance. “We’ve got Singapore as a competitor now, and even the UK.”

In a later session, former Prime Minister John Key advocated urgency to exploit New Zealand’s economic advantage from having managed the virus well. “Realistically, what we know is when you see countries that are either vaccinated or getting vaccinated quite rapidly, including the US and UK, is actually their economies are starting to bounce back.

“We don’t want to have moved from a position of strength [over] Covid to actually being left behind. So we have got to get on with it.”

Kenneth Leong, a Malaysian-born former international student who settled in New Zealand and is an investor and business advisor shared that sentiment. “Why are we so conservative about talking about the possibility of opening up more bubbles?” he asked. “Not even having a conversation about opening out to other places like Taiwan and Singapore.”

He said MIQ facilities had 1019 vacancies on Thursday. “I’m very concerned we are squandering this small window of opportunity.” 

Leong focused on international education, saying tens of thousands of students wanted to come to New Zealand and were willing to pay the fees, such as University of Auckland’s $46,000 a year. That was the equivalent of funding one trainee nurse or one trainee police officer each time.

Students who had been planning to come here were now looking at Britain and Canada, countries that had re-opened. “Even the Brits are moving at pace,” he said, to laughter from the conference.

“We are absolutely a laggard in that regard,” said Leong, who is also chair of the ASEAN-NZ business council.

He knew of investors who wanted to come here “but someone has to sort out the shambles at immigration”. Panel convenor Leon Grice, a former New Zealand trade diplomat, added: “We are talking a few hundred people who want to come in and actively invest in New Zealand.”

Marc Mitchell, an American investor from Los Angeles who is now an NZ resident, said in a session for “perspectives from recent arrivals” that it was important New Zealand used this time to identify what it needs. If it was short of doctors, for example, “let’s sort out a plan to identify that need and fill that need”.

“I feel this country is in the driver’s seat but … that window is closing. This needs to happen now. It is not a plan to roll out over three or four years. You could put together a small programme and you would have people lining up out the door. It’s about being bold and aggressive. Identify the handful of things that are doable and make it happen.”

Jade Gray, of Plant Nation, has returned home after 20 years living in China. He too spoke of the narrow opportunity for NZ to use its Covid-free position to its economic advantage. “There’s a window there. How fast that closes depends on how fast other countries move.

“I know what it looks like to see a country grab an opportunity … but the window is closing in about six months, a lot faster than we realise.”

Gaming entrepreneur Gabe Newell, at Auckland’s Future Now. Photo: Bryan Lowe, Auckland Unlimited.

Billionaire video gaming founder Gabe Newell of Valve Corporation and the Steam platform, who was stuck in New Zealand at the height of lockdown in 2020 and remained here, becoming an NZ resident, was upbeat about the country’s ongoing attraction.

The ability for businesses to have part of their operations and staff in a place where the virus had not affected productivity to the degree elsewhere was “enormously valuable …That’s going to be incredibly attractive. You need to have offices set up in New Zealand because they have this incredible productivity record.”

The pandemic was not a problem that was going away fast. “We should anticipate that this will be an ongoing challenge. New Zealand has proved it is, if not the best, then one of the top three places in the world for hosting high-tech workers. “

Firms could undertake pilot programmes based from this country. “All the big tech companies should be doing this,” Newell said. “It’s really a question of how welcoming New Zealand and Auckland is going to be to these pilot programmes. I’m happy to participate in helping to spread that message.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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