The year ahead: What do we want to be?

More effort will be needed in future if New Zealand is to be a bright spot.

If we could take a snapshot of the world as 2017 begins and ask ourselves what there is to be optimistic about, New Zealand might well be at the top of the list.

But only if we are making comparisons. Elsewhere there is a lot to be pessimistic about. Brexit, the possible collapse of the European Union, the rise of the far-right, the “unpresidented” (sic) election of a person totally unqualified to do the job as President of the world’s most powerful nation, Syria, Russia, climate change, famine, tensions in the South China Seas – the list goes on and on. If 2016 was full of disruption, 2017 looks like being more so.

Compared with all this New Zealand looks like an oasis of calm. This, of course, is no reason to be complacent. Many of the drivers that have caused problems in other nations exist here. If someone decided to respond in the same populist way as Johnson, Putin or Trump during what is an election year, things may be very different.

That New Zealand has done so comparatively well can be put down to the economy. Despite the Global Financial Crisis, a mix of earthquake money, migration, construction, high diary prices and a Rugby World Cup allowed the government to steer us through challenging years relatively unscathed. John Key’s advice to “relax” because everything would be alright helped as well.

We should not under-rate just how difficult recent years have been nor downplay the role the Key, English and Joyce team have played in keeping the country ticking over. But that was then and this is now. In the years ahead much more will be needed if we are to continue to be a bright spot. 

In fact, given the state of the world we should be setting our sights on being nothing less than an example of what can be achieved.

Questions to answer
We could start by sorting out what kind of nation we want to be. Are we “open” or “closed”? Are we in this together, or are we out for number one? Can we create more wealth and make sure everyone gets a share? Is the market to define everything? How do we foster innovation? Do we want everyone to have free access to public services like health and education? Is climate change real? How do we support strong families and communities? Can we make our democracy more democratic? Is it time to become a Republic? Do we accept that rights come with responsibilities? How do we reduce crime? Are we a cosmopolitan nation? Should we be active on the world stage?

Having sorted out the big questions, we need to be asking ourselves what we will do in practice to build a better future. I have long been an advocate of “mission-oriented” policy – where a clearly stated  objective can offer a fresh direction for the economy as well as the wider society and culture.

When I was growing up New Zealand was a highly successful agricultural nation. What would we say we are today? Obviously we should aim to have a diverse economy that plays to many strengths. But if we have a sense of mission decisions about what to invest in, what education we should offer young people, what infrastructure to build and what kind of new technologies we will need become easier to make. With a sense of purpose, what we do will take us step by step closer to our goal.

Creating a mission
Having a mission will make things clear but not easy. In fact, the mission should be a demanding one that can only be achieved if we are prepared to change in many and substantial ways.  If this is not the case then we will end up doing versions of the same old things. And believe me that will not be enough.

After decades of democratic nations following the mantra that globalisation meant all they could do was make the world a safe place for business and finance to do whatever it wanted, recent events have changed the game. The world economy may have grown but the rewards have been distributed very unevenly. Globalisation has also created growing social problems and a sense of personal isolation that is leading to rebellion.

It is important to understand that this rebellion is populated by more than the so-called “left behind.” The people who are voting for political change across the world include just as many from other sectors of society. They are united by an overwhelming sense that something is profoundly wrong. They are right in that judgement.

Under these circumstances just muddling through no matter how nice that might feel will not do. If the future is not to be left to populists peddling simplistic solutions to complex issues, then it is time for what has been called the centre of politics to get moving.

By the centre, I mean the people who seek to balance the competing priorities of community, a dynamic market economy and sustainable environment. The world has lived too often through times when single minded visions of what is good for everyone has led us down alleys that are not only blind but also horrific. It is no exaggeration to say that the world seems to be loitering around such alleyways again.

Such an observation may seem too much when viewed from the vantage point of New Zealand. From here the world may well seem OK. Many people already look to us as a safe haven. We can be much more not just for ourselves but for a world that wants to know that hope is possible.

Steve Maharey is a commentator on social and political issues. He is the former vice-chancellor of Massey University

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