The Canterbury Earthquake, terrible though it was, reminds us of the courage and resilience of New Zealanders in a crisis.
If only the same courage and strength could be tapped as part of our normal ‘economic development’, NZ would be able to unlock enormous untapped potential.
That same courage was evident in many of our forebears: those who voyaged to NZ by waka or ship, and those hacked down the bush to form arable pasture (often on slopes so steep it should not have been touched, but their courage was undeniable).
Tapping into that same strength of character to unlock future potential is part of the task that lies before us.
Our world is changing. The old solutions will not work for tomorrows problems. The old certainties have gone. The era of guaranteed markets in the UK for our sheep and beef has gone. The era of free and easy credit has now gone.
We are told we face a ‘decade of deleveraging’. All around us we see growing signs of despair.
Just as in the 70’s we were called upon to diversify our markets, in the 80’s to deregulate our economy, and in the 00’s to rebuild our torn social fabric, Labour is now called upon to rise to a new challenge in a new era. Just as Mickey Savage did in the 1930s, we are being called upon to find a better way.
NZ is currently meandering through the aftermath of the global financial crisis. We are beset by malaise. We lack confidence. We appear unable to define our own future, and even lack awareness of our own potential and character.
So NZ falls back passively on its proximity to larger Asian growth centres, its traditional bulk agricultural base, and its relationship with its nearest neighbour Australia.
These are undeniable strategic advantages, but if any are a substitute for owning our own future, they will ultimately undermine our national wellbeing and identity.
Our relationship with foreign investment has to change. As it stands we are becoming more and more deeply indebted to foreigners. We have been through a phase of selling state assets to cover the interest. We are now selling our land at the rate of dozens of rugby fields a day. But still our national debt keeps rising.
It was not primarily ‘the government’s’ fault. Most of this debt is private debt. Most of it fuelled the private binge on property consumption (it was never really ‘investment’ despite the temporary up-cycle in which much of it happened).
That we need more foreign investment is undeniable, but it must be channelled into genuinely value-creating and productive activity and not simply transfer the ownership of existing assets to foreigners making our future income deficit worse.
A new conversation must begin – one that starts from the proposition that we wish to own and govern our own affairs.