Owen Glenn: Wakey wakey NZ, rise and shine

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In the first of a series of columns leading up to the election, Owen Glenn says NZ needs a wake-up call.

Owen Glenn says New Zealanders must forget the 'she'll be right' ethic and rediscover initiative and hard work. Photo / Richard Robinson
Owen Glenn says New Zealanders must forget the 'she'll be right' ethic and rediscover initiative and hard work. Photo / Richard Robinson

New Zealand is in a place of passivity and inertia that has me worried.

I'm concerned that it is lapsing back into a "she'll be right" attitude that I thought we had left far behind in our development as a country.

Why do I think this?

There seems to be a fascination with problem identification and then only paying lip service to engaging with policy to break any impasse.

There are plenty of commissions, summits, huis, council pow-wows and "bold initiatives" but the meaty bits that will make a difference are left unattended.

We're waiting for something to happen but we're not exactly sure what that might be, or should be.

Those we count on to provide direction - our politicians - might be waiting to unveil their plans for the path to prosperity. I'm hopeful this is the case but aware of the possibility that they could be bereft of ideas and meaningful policies.

My advice is that rather than play the blinded possum in the headlights waiting to become economic road-kill, we need a collective wake up call.

We need to change our mindset, and the only way to do this is by insisting that visions are articulated, opportunities created and the future secured to the best of advantage.

We owe it to our country and each other to lift our sights and lift our game.

In an article in the University of Auckland News the vice-chancellor talked about the New Zealand economy being at long-term risk and steps the university was taking to respond to this challenge.

Rather than being transfixed by in-action, let's all look for creative solutions. With the talent pool of people living in New Zealand, and passionate Kiwis like me abroad, we shouldn't be lacking in thought, leadership and action.

While history shows that the Rogernomics period was not everyone's cup of tea, at least the process of nationwide soul searching and loin girding that came from it gave us a way forward and a sense of purpose.

We came out from under the skirts of Mother England. We put our feet firmly on the path to being a major contributor to a global marketplace. We had a clear vision and an ability to articulate our place in the world. We achieved and celebrated international success. We became proactive and proud.

So what has halted our momentum and why are we suffering from this impasse?

Is it because we continue to be shackled to the voracious appetite of a welfare system that needs major reform to continue to be affordable?

Is it a tendency to indulge in issues from the past that should have been sorted out years ago but which continue to cost us in time and resources?

Have we succumbed to "tall poppyism", where we baulk at displaying our wares and ideas for profit?

Does the mythology of Robin Hood really have traction as policies aimed at punishing the wealth creators instead of rewarding them continue?

Is it also that we, compared to many other parts of the world, haven't really had any major worries to contend with?

The Christchurch earthquake was the exception and the sense of community, generosity, urgency and action demonstrated by the person in the street showed me that passion and zeal are still alive at home.

So, too, are the opportunities for New Zealanders.

The New Zealand I left decades ago to find my own way in the world is a different place to what we have now.

Then, I saw very limited opportunity to advance myself - particularly as I had not been able to afford advanced tertiary education and had no access to capital. My family had no way of helping me - my father was ill - and I thought my horizons seemed somewhat narrow.

It was then that I got my own wake up call. Rather than succumb to what I perceived as the inevitable, I took the initial risk of leaving home and from there didn't look back.

I discovered the world was very much like the oyster of opportunity people talk about. The only way you get to the pearl is through endeavour, initiative and hard work.

On my return trips to my favoured homeland I've helped shake the kauri tree and make the point that no one owes us a certain standard of living.

We simply have to earn it. If we want to enjoy the products of other nations, we have to sell them our products and ideas. We do not live in an incubator - and while I'm encouraged by the increasing number of home-grown initiatives coming from tertiary institutions, public and private sector visionaries and entrepreneurs putting their energies forward to help us raise our capabilities, I think we're still only scratching the surface.

For a start let's challenge our politicians to not simply be vote gatherers but instead become leaders and visionaries.

If there is a policy blue print that offers a path towards greater prosperity for the country, I'd love to be privy to it. With an election - perhaps the most critical for this country in decades - looming, we should be demanding that politicians and parties bring answers rather than questions. In other words we need a clear sense of direction and leadership.

I'd be looking at those wanting to create better, smarter and leaner public services. I'd want to see us measure ourselves by international standards when it comes to building a competitive regulatory environment and developing a fair and efficient tax system.

Productivity is a by-product of game-raising activities, and I'd be encouraged to see investment in infrastructure, skill, development and support for science, innovation and trade as priorities. Actions such as the development of a national broadband strategy, including a rural component, show we have the capacity to identify in worthy areas of investment.

The points put on the board by places such as The Icehouse, and the successes demonstrated by the commercial arms of some of our tertiary institutions, show we can identify big issues and take equally sizeable actions. All we need is much more of the same.

I would also, with a passion, give my vote to those setting up the systems, psyche and collective effort to make us an outstanding source, and exporter, of world-leading and beating products, services and ideas.

We can achieve this - and we have to.

I would like to see us back paying our way in five to 10 years. We need to put more people to work in support of a competitive and productive range of products. The world is hungry for goods and services.

We have two major powerhouses - China and India virtually right next door. Indeed, as evidenced by Prime Minister John Key's trip to India, there is a wealth of talent that when combined with New Zealand nous and ingenuity could create unimaginable opportunities. But we need to energise our efforts not with jobs for the boys but with trained and experienced people; surely they don't all have to be from New Zealand?

I have some ideas for action that I look forward to voicing over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, and especially with an election looming, think carefully about where you cast your vote. It deserves to go to those who will allow this wonderful country to continue to offer more to ourselves and the world.

* Owen Glenn is a Kiwi businessman and philanthropist and an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

- NZ Herald

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