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Tapu Misa: Search for role model insult to NZ's global leadership

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David Shearer's choice of Finland as the country we most want to imitate did not have the effect he desired.
Photo / Mark Mitchell
David Shearer's choice of Finland as the country we most want to imitate did not have the effect he desired. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There was a time when John Key's money was on Ireland as the role model we should emulate, but that was before the global financial meltdown exposed the Irish economic miracle as "a mirage driven by the clever use of tax-haven rules and a huge credit boom" (IMF economist).

After that, we had our sights fixed on catching up with Australia (though not so much these days as the drift across the Tasman continues apace, helping our unemployment rate look better than it otherwise would).

Former Act MP Roger Douglas thought we should remake ourselves in the image of Singapore, lauding its low government spending and tax rates as the path to higher productivity and economic growth.

His economic prescription didn't seem to involve adopting other Singaporean features, though. As British writer John Lanchester has observed, Singapore is "the world capital of free markets and also of council flats".

The Government owns most of the land in Singapore, and the overwhelming majority of its population lives in socialised housing.

That's the trouble with international comparisons; they seldom tell the whole story.

Which explains why David Shearer's choice of Finland as the country we should most want to imitate hasn't had quite the effect he might have hoped for - Gerry Brownlee's embarrassing "satirical" fail notwithstanding.

John Key scored an easy hit when he pointed out that the much-admired Finnish way included partial sales of state assets, which Labour - and most New Zealanders - oppose.

It doesn't help that Finland was also used by Roger Douglas to sell us on the merits of Rogernomics, as the Scoop journalist Gordon Campbell reminds us. In a 1985 Listener article, Douglas cited Finland as an example of a country where his brand of brutal economic reforms had succeeded.

Somewhat misleadingly. As Campbell observed, the Listener article made clear that "Finland hadn't tried anything like the same scale of reform as the Fourth Labour government, and had derived poor results from the similar reforms it had enacted".

There is, of course, much to admire about Finland. An enviably low rate of child poverty, for example, no testing for the first six years of schooling, free school lunches for all children, teachers recruited from the top 10 per cent of university graduates, and early specialist help for the 30 per cent of primary school children who need it.

If we must have a role model, we could do a lot worse than Finland. We could be taking our cues from the United States. (Oh, wait - we do; in education, welfare reform, and prison management, for example.)

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote during a visit here last week that, "looking at America from here makes me feel as though we have the worst of all worlds right now".

"The days when there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, who nudged the two parties together, appear over."

That's putting it mildly, given the madness that currently infects American politics, thanks to, in the words of a former Republican staffer, the "apocalyptic cult" that passes for the Republican Party these days.

Perhaps it's time we stopped trying to emulate others and remembered that we've been world leaders, too: think the women's vote, ACC (whatever its current problems), the Waitangi Tribunal, and being nuclear-free. We're apt to forget that we might have something to teach others.

We don't come off too badly, in fact, when held up against the US, the theme of a new book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States.

Comparing our histories, Fischer suggests that our social and political choices have been driven by the dominance of different values: freedom and liberty in the US, and fairness and social justice in New Zealand.

As Benjamin Schwarz writes in The Atlantic, New Zealand's achievements "seem all the greater when compared with those of the United States. In 2010, its unemployment rate was nearly half of ours. Our economic inequality is the highest of any developed country's; New Zealand's hovers much lower on the list. New Zealand ranks first in Transparency International's global survey of government honesty; the United States ranks 22nd - just ahead of Uruguay!" And comparable divergences, Fischer shows, are found "in trends and measures of political partisanship, legislative stalemate, judicial dysfunction, infrastructure decay, home foreclosures, family distress, drug consumption, and social violence".

Fischer's rich cultural analysis leaves little doubt that New Zealand's achievements are largely rooted in its "highly developed vernacular ideas of fairness, a complex set of values that Kiwis prize and pursue earnestly. The result: by virtually every measure, New Zealand has a more just and decent society than ours - while resorting far less readily to legalistic and legislative remedies".

For better or worse, Americans will never emulate New Zealanders, writes Schwarz.

"But as we enter the Pacific Century, New Zealand and its more energetic antipodean cousin will be playing an ever more vital economic, cultural, and political role.

"Rather than continue pontificating about 'America's larger purpose in the world' (to quote our President's messianic invocation), we'd perhaps be better off shutting up and trying to learn something from otherpeoples."

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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