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Dr Muriel Newman

It is about Trust

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One in six New Zealanders now live abroad, including an estimated 24 percent of our skilled workforce. This is the highest proportion of any country in the OECD. According to the Government Statistician, in the year to September, long-term departures from New Zealand reached 82,254, the greatest number since 1979. Of those, 42,316 Kiwis headed to Australia, the highest number in over twenty years.[1]

With the election countdown in days rather than months, voters could by now have expected the language of the election campaign to be expressions of human potential and hope – how New Zealand could be a place where people would want to return for more than just a short stay to visit relatives. But rather than aspiration and vision, the campaign has become distracted by orchestrations of trust, secret recordings, whether road tolls should be $2 or $3 a trip, or more absurdly, whether stating that Chinese workers have smaller hands than Pacific Islanders is racist!

While these frivolous side-shows satisfy the media’s need for simple sensation, they do nothing to draw the minds of voters to the critical issues of our day. Totally absent from any debate is the fundamental issue of what rather than who they wish to govern their lives. Do they want another three years under a maternalistic “state knows best” regime, or do they want to live in a society that has personal freedom and responsibility as its foundation? It’s an important issue, more so given the certainly of a significant Green presence in the next Labour led government – should it be able to create the five-headed Frankenstein monster that John Key has alluded to.

At the crux of this issue is what we as individuals expect from our government. How much do we want it interfering in our personal decisions? Do we want a government do decide for us which light bulbs to use, which showers to install, what we can eat, or how we should raise our children? Clearly those who do not feel confident about making those decisions themselves will be wishing for a Labour Green government come 8th November. I imagine those same people will also want the government to set their wages, provide their accommodation, as well as determine the quality of their healthcare and their children’s education.

Or do we want a government that respects “ordinary” New Zealanders to make their own decisions about everyday matters? Like Helen Clark I want this election to be about trust. Helen Clark wants us to trust her not John Key. I want Helen Clark and John Key to trust New Zealanders.

So what do we want from our government: one that micro manages our lives, or one that creates dreams and aspirations and establishes an environment in which those dreams and aspirations can be fulfilled?

Imagine if we had a government that entered into a contract with New Zealand to return us to being in the top three in the OECD. That is a position that we last held in 1966.[2] To achieve such a goal – in addition to general policies to improve wellbeing in New Zealand by reducing crime, providing quality healthcare and so on – there would need to be a commitment to lower flatter taxes, an education system that delivers the highest possible standards, and a determination to remove the bureaucratic roadblocks that are seriously undermining the productivity and profitability of small business.

In return, New Zealanders would need to accept responsibility for their part in the contract, by embracing our winning Kiwi “can-do” attitude, working hard and striving to be the best – the attitude that motivated us to achieve past glories like winning the Americas Cup.

To be fair to Labour, when they first became the government in 1999 they announced an ambitious goal of lifting New Zealand back into the top half of the OECD. But words were not enough, and when it became obvious that their high tax and regulation policies were not going to achieve the goal, they changed the goal instead of changing the policies. As a result, rather than moving up the OECD ladder, we have slid down from 20th place in 1999, to 22nd place in 2007. Three more years of Labour’s tax and spend philosophy and the Green Party’s goal of reducing economic growth, will see that slide continue.

Interestingly, if we had been able to achieve the goal of moving back into the top half of the OECD, New Zealand’s per capita income would have risen from US$26,600 (NZ $47,645) in 2007, to US$35,300 (NZ$63,228). Imagine just how much better our quality of life would be if New Zealand was climbing up the OECD ladder instead of falling down.[3]

As a country, we desperately need an informed debate about these sorts of issues. New Zealand voters are starved of inspiration and leadership. We want to know that our individual efforts are all part of the wider purpose of helping to create a successful and prosperous country that will not only provide a great quality of life for citizens, but will help to attract home all of those Kiwis who would return like a shot – if only they could afford to.

This week’s NZCPR Commentator, economist Stuart Birks, the director of the Centre for Public Policy Evaluation at Massey University, has expressed his concerns about the quality of the election debate in this way:

“It would be nice to believe that the current election campaign would consist of well-informed debate on important issues. Ideally, there would be a good airing of the best alternative policies. Politicians, armed with the facts, would debate openly without being tied to agendas, hidden or otherwise. Let’s be honest, though. That is not what is happening.”

In his paper, Stuart discusses the way that governments and political parties spin issues in order to win the debate in the public eye – irrespective of the truth of the matter. He describes how they can only do this because the public has a limited understanding of what are usually very complex issues:

“There is a good reason why views can be influenced in these ways. Most policy issues relate to things about which people have little direct experience. Therefore they have to rely on others for their information. In addition, the issues are not ones that they can do something about individually. Owing to their complexity, the number of people affected, or the costs of intervention, co-ordinated action is needed. So people begin by being poorly informed, and they generally have little incentive to put in much effort to become well informed”.

In his article Let’s not kid ourselves – politics and reasoned debate he explains how “they rely on readily available information, such as that provided through the media and by politicians in election campaigns. They are in no position to accurately assess the quality of the information, and are likely to accept the commonly accepted views that they hear, including the views of the people around them.”

Providing a credible information source on complex public policy issues was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research. With a background in education and business and nine years as a Member of Parliament, I wanted to promote greater understanding of these important matters through research, publications and open public debate. Further, by providing ready access to the feedback provided by thousands of readers, the NZCPR has now become a comprehensive library of public opinion and expertise on policy issues. I hope you find our information to be of interest.

The election outcome is crucially important to the future direction of New Zealand. Let’s hope that the debate over the next twelve days focuses on the key issues and helps to inform voters of the important decision that lies ahead on November 8th.


1.Statistics NZ, International Travel and Migration – Sept 2008

2.Treasury, NZ’s place on the OECD ladder

3.NBR, OECD ladder too steep for NZ to climb

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