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Initiative matters: Three big issues for 2014

A week is a long time in politics, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said. He may well have been right when he coined this phrase in the 1960s.However, the arrival of 24-hour news channels, the World Wide Web and social media have accelerated the passage of political time so that the weeks nowadays seem even longer. Rapid change is the only certainty left in contemporary politics.

In stark contrast to this acceleration of political life stands the permanence of some of the policy issues we are dealing with.

Parliaments may get elected, ministers and prime ministers change, bills become law but at the end of the day we are left with the same problems we have been discussing for years, if not decades:
• How do we lift our productivity levels?

• How can we adjust our social systems in the face of an ageing society?

• How do we attract talent to New Zealand and how do we keep it here?

The New Zealand Initiative was formed in April 2012; in political terms, this must seem like half an eternity. But the topics we decided to focus on in our first couple of years have proven both timeless and timely: housing affordability, the openness of the New Zealand economy; and the quality of the education system and the teachers working within it.

In hindsight, we could not have picked any more burning issues for the future of this country:

Over the past months, we have seen how price increases in our housing market have become so concerning that the Reserve Bank resorted to some highly unorthodox measures to cool it in the form of loan-to-value ratios.

At the same time, ordinary families are struggling to get a foot on the property ladder or to keep up with their mortgage payments.

As UNCTAD’s latest World Investment Report shows, capital inflows to New Zealand fell by a third in the previous year. It is clear to see that our economy is not nearly as attractive and open to foreign investors as we believe.

If we needed a wake-up call that there are problems within our education system, the last PISA report delivered them. For the first time ever, New Zealand dropped not only in the international league tables but our students also fell behind in absolute terms.

We believe that these three issues are among the most important challenges facing this country. This is why we are working on them, as you would have seen in the reports and comment articles we have published this year.

We were happy about the positive responses we have received on them. We were equally pleased about the controversies they have created. Robust debates are needed to tackle these big issues.

As we are about to enter an election year, political debate may focus more on the fight for power rather than the question of what to do with it once it is attained or secured.

This does not make the job of think tanks like us any easier but it makes our work all the more important. You can expect us to do more research and develop creative policy recommendations especially where political debates have become stale and predictable.

Oliver Hartwich is executive director of The New Zealand Initiative

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