Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 16 December 2016
For some people, Christmas has come early. Just think of our new Prime Minister Bill English. For the rest of us, there is still a week to refine our wish lists.
Personally, I have quite a few wishes for Christmas and the new year.
For a start, I would like the next year to be all about finding the right answers to those problems we are facing as a country.
I know such discussions rarely happen in election years when we are distracted by much more entertaining things like tea tapes, Kim Dotcom or Nicky Hager’s latest book. It is the political equivalent of keeping up with the Kardashians, and it covers way too much space in our newspapers.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think what New Zealand needs instead are better debates about our direction as a nation. There would be plenty to talk about.
Of course, New Zealand is doing well on a number of fronts. The Legatum Institute did not label us the most prosperous country in the world for nothing. Neither can we complain about our decent economic growth, low unemployment, zero inflation and sound public finances.
But let’s not kid ourselves. There are some things that are seriously wrong about New Zealand.
A few years ago, our politicians could not agree whether our housing market was a challenge or a crisis. By now, it should be clear that it is a challenging crisis. Our ridiculous property prices are a national disgrace.
How can it be that a country larger than the United Kingdom but with a population smaller than Singapore’s does not provide affordable housing to its people? Why are we so bad at building the houses the country needs?
Education is another national problem. Not the headline education figures which sound fine on average. But any education system is only ever as good as what it achieves for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
If you happen to be an Asian child, there is a 75 percent chance you will finish school with NCEA level 3 or above. That is good. But if you are Māori the figure is only 31 percent. And students from schools in the highest two deciles are almost three times more likely to leave school with such a qualification than students from schools in the lowest two deciles.
We must not be satisfied with an education system that produces outcomes like this. We should expect a world class system for all our children, regardless of ethnicity or social background.
On a more abstract level, we have known for a very long time that productivity growth in New Zealand is subpar compared to most other developed countries. But do we do anything about it? Does it bother us that even countries like Trinidad & Tobago, Italy and Slovenia are creating more wealth per hour worked than us? Or are we content with being just slightly ahead of Greece? Really?
My Christmas wish for this next election year is that we as a nation have proper debates about these questions. We need to hold our politicians to account and ask them what they are going to do to make New Zealand a country that works for all its people.
At The New Zealand Initiative, we see it as our role to help facilitate these debates and contribute novel ideas to them. We have done plenty of that this year.
As Insights readers, you have read about our work on education policy, poverty and inequality, local government reform, and fisheries management. Our team is developing great ideas and proposals for a better future for all New Zealanders. You can expect us to feed them into next year’s election debate.
We have also staged big events with leading domestic and international thinkers. The highlight among them was Stephen Jennings inspirational speech to us in July, which has been watched more than 33,000 times on YouTube since.
We had a fantastic year at the Initiative but there is much more work for us to do next year. At the top of my Christmas wish list are better debates and better ideas for a better New Zealand.
We are happy to work with Prime Minister Bill English, Opposition Leader Andrew Little and indeed politicians of all parties on developing policies for a better future.
From all of us at the Initiative, thank you for your support, your feedback and your time this year.
Have a wonderful Christmas, a relaxing summer break and a prosperous New Year,
Dr Oliver Hartwich
PS: Insights will take a break over the summer. We will be back in your inbox on Friday, 20 January 2017.