The epic scale of political conflict in the US is fantastic theatre - so much so it risks making New Zealand's problems seem trivial.

Donald Trump's policies also have a big impact on us. Whether it is through trade or the extent to which he fires up the US economy - influencing currency, interest rates and inflation all over the world.

But let's face it, it makes turning back to the big domestic issues in New Zealand hard work.

In cricketing terms, it's a bit like following a rain-affected test series between the Black Caps and Bangladesh after you've been watching the Big Bash.

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Broadly the New Zealand economy is in solid shape - with GDP growth running above three per cent - and that doesn't really help when it comes to the intensity of debate.

The election this year should liven things up. But the showdown between Bill English and Andrew Little doesn't conjure quite the fire of the US campaign.

Winston Peters is our wild card populist candidate...again. The excitement he brings to the race is tempered a bit by the fact that he first entered parliament 39 years ago.

But while we might not have the big personalities, and we aren't grappling with impending economic doom, there are number big issues that we need to pay attention to:

Housing

This remains the doozy of New Zealand economic issues. Housing affordability is making life miserable for a significant percentage of New Zealanders. The trouble is - as much we are loathed to admit it - soaring house prices are also making a big chunk of the voting public feel wealthy and secure.

The Government has promised big things around a supply side solution to the problem - ie building a lot more houses. But whether it can deliver on that promise remains to be seen. Even as it moves to resolve issues about land supply new problems are emerging - including rising building costs, labour shortages and the availability of funding for new developments.

Infrastructure:

Has the Government's tight focus on spending come at a cost to the nation's roads, schools and hospitals? There are certainly plenty of voices in the business community who'd like to see the budget surplus steered towards new transport initiatives. Then there are calls from the left for more emphasis on health and education. New Zealand's population has risen dramatically in the past few years. That has flattered our GDP growth but it comes at a cost, which brings us to...

Immigration:

There has been a record inflow of residents into the country in the last couple of years and that's putting pressure on infrastructure and - some argue - housing.

There will always be a chunk of the population that doesn't like immigration. Although most economists will tell you that a net population gain is better than a decline. Have we got the balance right? Are we getting the right skills and can we afford to be more picky?

Wage growth:

This has been the laggard in the rosy economic data. A meaningful increase in real wages would go some way to addressing housing affordability and at least offer some economic upside to those that haven't benefited from the boom in assets like property and shares.

Productivity:

Real wage growth is driven by improved productivity. Unfortunately, New Zealand's record on improving productivity is pretty lacklustre. We've worked harder in the past few decades but not necessarily smarter. The technology sector has started to get a roll on but it has some way to go to challenge agriculture or tourism as the leading earner for New Zealand. More investment in science, research and development is needed. Should the Government be driving that? Or is it a private sector issue?

Poverty:

Everyone is in favour of ending poverty. It seems like a no brainer - until you start talking about how to fix it. Actually the debate starts before that. New Zealanders can't agree on how to define the problem. But clearly we have people - particularly children - desperately in need of assistance.

Dealing with some of the economic issues above will create wealth and may improve the situation. But there are deeper cultural and social issue at play too. There's work to be done by whoever is in power.


The relative stability New Zealand is enjoying right now provides a platform for addressing some of the more complex, long term issues about the way we live.

New Zealand consistently ranks pretty well in a lot of social and economic league tables but we have the potential to do much better if we continue to push for progress and improvement.

Regardless of your political persuasion we have a responsibility to embrace the debate this year.

So keep an eye on the US madness - whether it makes you laugh or cry - but let's not miss the chance to make 2017 count at home.