Max Harris replies: Being upfront about our country’s challenges

The author of The New Zealand Project responds to barbs from NBR's editor-at-large.

I appreciate the National Business Review’s engagement with my book, The New Zealand Project, in Editor’s Insight: Tackling Islam, Holocaust Denial and the Max Harris Project

The book is an attempt to ignite debate about big issues facing this country, and to offer new ideas from an unashamedly idealistic perspective. I don’t claim to be an expert, and I acknowledge that I am relatively young. 

Some people, like the NBR Editor at Large, will inevitably disagree with my suggestions. As I say in the book, everyone will have their own vision of the New Zealand project. I’d prefer that people disagree rather than not engage at all.

I do think, though, that we need to be clear-eyed about the problems facing our country, and the need for fresh thinking to address those problems.  The Editor's Insight column appears to query that.

The column says “New Zealand is at or near the top of dozens of global benchmarks for everything from inclusive growth, gender and racial equality, human development and social achievement.”

I agree that there’s a lot to be proud of in this country. But in all of the areas mentioned, we can also find indicators that don’t reflect well on New Zealand. To take just a couple of examples: in relation to rates of sexual assault, a 2011 United Nations report ranks New Zealand as the worst of all countries in the OECD.  No country I know of has a prison population made up of over 50% of its indigenous people.   

Ultimately it’s a question of perspective and urgency. We can decide whether we’ll be complacent about past achievements or whether we’ll focus on areas where pressing change is required. My view is that past progress has come not from patting ourselves on the back, but from an unflinching focus on – and commitment to – how we can be better. 

The column argues that my book “has left out all of the neoliberal achievements that have built prosperity on a thriving business sector.” 

I’m glad to see the NBR acknowledge the existence of neoliberalism as a political project, something denied by other commentators.

But the column doesn’t explain which neoliberal achievements I have ignored, merely stating that most of New Zealand’s” high global rankings have been “achieved by neoliberalist policies.”

The link to a 2016 article by Ben Southwood, "Why the Adam Smith Institute Has Embraced Neoliberalism," doesn’t support the argument. That article isn’t focused on New Zealand, and doesn’t cite any established economic benefits of neoliberalism.  

More recent analysis by economists at the World Economic Forum, the IMF (in a paper I cite in the book), the OECD, the World Bank, and the UN has been highly critical of neoliberalism. These economists have shown that neoliberalism has made countries like New Zealand more unequal and more indebted, and has failed to deliver promised economic benefits. I think, as a result, that we’re at least justified in considering approaches that are different to the neoliberal model – and that’s what I say in the book.

I think we’ll get the best kind of politics in this country if we’re open to new ideas, while at the same time being committed to rigorous argument. Use of labels such as “neo-socialism” – the description of my book given in Thursday’s column – isn’t conducive to careful debate.

I also think we can build a better politics by returning to values. Values are more than “a political movement in the 1970s” which “eventually morphed into the Green Party”.  They have a long history in New Zealand life, including in the Māori world. And a values-based politics has the potential to appeal to groups of people currently disengaged from politics – including young people.

So: let’s be clear-eyed about our country’s problems, including the legacies of neoliberalism. And let’s have the courage to look for alternative ways of doing things, possibly using values as a foundation.

My proposals in The New Zealand Project might not appeal to everyone. But I think we need a reflective, respectful, evidence-based debate. I hope all of us, including the NBR, can encourage more of that.

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