Fran O'Sullivan: CEOs to be key part of new think tank

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Andrew Thorburn will be part of a select group pressing CEOs to help set the think tank's policy agenda. Photo / Richard Robinson
Andrew Thorburn will be part of a select group pressing CEOs to help set the think tank's policy agenda. Photo / Richard Robinson

In a fortnight's time a number of New Zealand's most influential business people will have a two-day session and emerge with the bones of a new policy think tank.

The birth of a new think tank whose members (they will after all be mainly chief executives) want to challenge current thinking on issues of national importance is well-timed.

NZ Business Roundtable chairman Roger Partridge, who is one of the two main drivers, is upbeat.

Over the summer break a good deal of work was done on how to bring the Business Roundtable and the NZ Institute (chaired by Tony Carter) together. The respective brands were probed. And areas of commonality identified so the new brand story was faithful to both originating organisations.

Among them an over-arching goal of how to make the country more prosperous.

Core values that are likely to drive the new think tank include a focus on open and competitive markets and a free, fair and cohesive society.

An executive search will take place to identify a chief executive to head the think tank.

All good stuff. But will this result in the chief executives whose companies fund membership fees for the new think tank being prepared to directly engage themselves in robust debate on issues of national importance?

Compared with Australia, which has a raft of think tanks, New Zealand is poorly served. For instance, we rely on Australia's Lowy Institute or the Australian National University for reports that seriously engage on New Zealand's place in the globalised world. Many NZ-domiciled academics are still too afraid to put their heads over the parapet. Although this is finally changing.

Even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under the leadership of NZ Post's former CEO John Allen, issued a post-election briefing paper to its Minister Murray McCully where most of the pages were blank.

This is fundamentally absurd given the Government's strategic focus for New Zealand firms to engage more offshore. But there has not been a squeak out of the business sector as to why MFAT has "classified" most of its advice to McCully.

Surely they would want to know if MFAT had grave foreign policy concerns. Or was warning about possible trends that might threaten New Zealand's economic prospects with the very nations with which it was publicly pushing New Zealand firms to engage?

The published "strategies" to engage with major countries like China and India are also woefully silent on strategic "what ifs" and risk analysis.

And when the Government is having to face down a woefully misinformed public over the realities of bilateral free trade and investment deals - as with the Crafar farms - business has stood on the sidelines.

Australian CEOs also seem less wary when it comes to engaging with journalists (they are used to operating in a robust environment which at times verges on feral). But in this country they are less forward.

Younger CEOs like BNZ's Andrew Thorburn are openly critical of the reluctance of fellow business leaders to step up to the plate. Thorburn will be among a select number that will urge other chief executives to publicly promote and comment on the new think tank's policy agenda.

Five years ago it would have been unthinkable for the "liberal progressives" that set-up the NZ Institute to join the Roundtable's annual retreat as they will on March 1 and 2. Let alone pull off a merger.

Let's face it, the BRT was hyper-critical when the brains trust behind the "Catching the Knowledge Wave" drive of the early 2000s established its own think tank.

The Roundtable's members thought the new institute was a cop-out. A deliberate step to cultivate influence with former Prime Minister Helen Clark's government instead of confronting major policy issues in a full-blooded fashion.

Both the Roundtable and the Institute have credible track records. But the BRT ultimately became inextricably identified with the personality of its sole executive director, the late Roger Kerr, who fronted it since its inception in 1985. The NZ Institute didn't start until more than 15 years later. It has had two directors: David Skilling and Rick Boven.

Partridge stresses the think tank won't replicate the work of lobby groups like BusinessNZ which is now the peak business organisation in this country.

BusinessNZ has also established a major companies group to help ensure that New Zealand's largest companies are heard in policy, business and economic debate. It describes the 60-strong group as having a collective weight of influence that enables it to provide strong counsel to government and other key decision makers.

It has been involved in debates over the regulation and governance of the electricity sector, the response to the global financial crisis, tax reforms, emissions trading, infrastructure planning, the single economic market and savings and investment.

But the problem is that unlike the Business Council of Australia - whose chief executive membership does at times openly push the work of its various taskforces - the major companies group does not have a big profile of its own.

The new think tank can argue it is simply working in the nation's best interests.

But my test of its success will be if it conducts some robust research on issues like foreign investment and openly engages with the increasingly insular mindset that is developing here.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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