Opinion: I do not typically look to Christopher Luxon for inspiration. But he did make one very incisive observation last week. Talking in preparation for the Budget, he called for what he described as “a healthy relationship on an equal footing” between business and government.
I thought about what sort of country it was where business and government were “equal”. So much for his recent enthusiasm for “one person, one vote” in determining the future direction of the country!
A quick lesson, Christopher, in some of the basic precepts of the democracy you profess to support.
The people are supposed to decide where the future direction of the country should go, neither “business” as a collective (New Zealand Inc) nor individual business people. The idea is not that you have an elected Government which then negotiates on some “equal” basis with “business” over it.
It does, of course, go deeper than that and I can see where this perverted idea comes from. The Budget process reinforces it. The preparatory and subsequent commentary is strongly dominated by business economists, accountants and assorted cheerleaders. We see the business gatherings on TV with ministers “reporting in”. The process is not one anyone even tries to pretend empowers workers, beneficiaries, older people, or anyone who is not engaged in business in one sense or another.
The people who run business are good at many things, but they are not focused on the public good, nor are they best placed to understand or be responsive to the interests of the planet or the poor or marginalised communities
The people are passive recipients of the Budget process who may or may not get some morsel tossed their way (or taken away) and may be asked in a vox pop what their reaction is. It is very obvious to all that the real power to act, to make major decisions, is with the politicians and their equal partners in business.
They will decide what happens, and how it will play out through their interest rate, employment, investment, etc decisions. The people will get the results. They will be told as the majority Government-owned Air NZ CEO put it this week, that business “is not a charity”. In other words, leave the big stuff to us, the economy is ours, you just deal with the outcomes.
In a meeting this week I was asked if I believe in capitalism. My answer was “Believe? I have actually seen it working! I have been at those tables, in those meetings. I don’t have to guess or cobble together a conspiracy theory.” It is not all evil. But neither is it all good nor consistent with the common purpose.
Adam Smith, that doyen of capitalism, knew this from the start: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public”.
You see this played out in public at Budget time as clearly as ever. Business bargaining with the government, seeking advantage. With their political support teams. No surprise there but it’s not nearly so easy to see the other side. A progressive, listening and responsive government should see its role as the active promotion of the wider interest. There were glimpses of this in the past week but equally the economic orthodoxy and the hesitancy is straight from the business playbook.
It would be good to see, in the preparation for big policy events such as the Budget, a much more open and inclusive discussion with interests other than business. The people who run business are good at many things, but they are not focused on the public good, nor are they best placed to understand or be responsive to the interests of the planet or the poor or marginalised communities.
The early stages of colonisation of this country were heavily influenced by The New Zealand Company. It is not a pretty record. Not at all sure we can rely on “New Zealand Inc” to do better now.