Mai Chen

Public and employment law specialist Mai Chen on current events

Mai Chen: Where do you want to be in 2050

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It's nearly Christmas and a new year is nigh, so it's time for us to start looking forward and thinking ahead.

New Zealand is becoming a more diverse nation and we have to adjust to it. Photo / AP
New Zealand is becoming a more diverse nation and we have to adjust to it. Photo / AP

Success is not permanent or static, but comes from keeping ahead of the wave. As we hurtle towards the Christmas shutdown, it is the best chance to look beyond the breakers at what waves might be heading our way next year and beyond.

Replacing your product before someone else does? Finding a business solution to a problem everyone has seen but nobody has solved? Figuring out how to future-proof your business against policy or law reform? Or discerning what new opportunities may arise from such reforms, for example, in respect of free trade agreements?

Failure to anticipate the future can be devastating for a business; NZ Post has had a huge downturn in posted letters as we all send emails instead. Thank goodness purchases from Trade Me are mainly posted. Media organisations have also struggled to keep up with how the internet and social media have changed the consumption of news.

Books like Megachange: The World in 2050 published by The Economist provide questions to get you started. As Lao Tzu said, "If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are going".

So where are you going, do you want to end up there, and if not, how do you change your direction? Here are some predictions about where we are going to end up, and how we might get there.

For government, the trend is an ever increasing public expectation of transparency and accountability, including of business as it interacts with government. Whether the Lobbying Disclosure Bill is passed or not, the underlying message of greater transparency in business lobbying of government is important for generating successful policy and legal outcomes.

Similarly, even if the Members of Parliament (Remuneration and Services) Bill, which shifts responsibility for administering ministerial and parliamentary allowances to the Remuneration Authority, was not now going through Parliament, MPs would still moderate their behaviour to prevent public backlash. All statutory complaints bodies and officers of Parliament, such as the Ombudsmen, Auditor-General and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment are experiencing surges in complaints.

Think more transparency and accountability, not less. That goes for the media too. Public revulsion about questionable journalistic practices means it will be hard for the British Government not to implement the Leveson report. Can New Zealand stave off similar further regulation by arguing that its journalistic culture is different?

Also think demography and race. Auckland is about 20 per cent Asian, 15 per cent Pasifika and 14 per cent Maori - almost a majority of the population in Auckland is non-European, and that's where the population growth is occurring.

Democracy is about majority rule - but in 2050, who will be the majority in Auckland, and what does this mean for the client bases you should be servicing, and who will have wealth and power? What are you going to change next year to make sure you are ahead of the curve?

Race also matters for our constitutional future. In all constitutional reviews we have had, the majority of Kiwis generally say that it isn't broken, we don't need to fix it, and we should let sleeping dogs lie.

But Maori submitters generally say that the system is broken because the Treaty is neither in nor out of our system, and indeed it should have a greater status, maybe even higher law status overriding all other law. The issue of Maori water interests was in the High Court last week, and we are awaiting a judgment before Christmas to determine whether the Government's mixed ownership model policy and share sales of Mighty River Power and other SOEs can occur. We know that other claims, including an application for a share of the 4G spectrum, and of other resources are in the pipeline or have been filed. What does this mean for policy and law reform?

When I advise Asian businesses, some tell me that they have not appreciated discrimination from New Zealanders, even ones they do business with. Pasifika are also getting more assertive about discrimination.

So the future of New Zealand will be much more diverse, and greater diversity does not mean that our future requires legislated quotas or affirmative action.

Rather, diversity should be seen as a market advantage given the creativity, innovation and imagination needed to stay ahead of the pack.

Increasingly we live in a global market place, so competition is not restricted by the physical borders of New Zealand. And the nature of the problems New Zealanders will face will be made much more difficult by the increasing scarcity of resources, climate change and the increasing number of elderly citizens.

Because of its small size, New Zealand will have to remain an open economy and we are likely to become more populous, especially in Auckland. Get used to the idea of apartment living so common overseas.

Fertility rates continue to decline for women in New Zealand as in all developed and some developing countries. The trend towards more home or whanau based care of children will increase. The result will be that many of the barriers to women achieving on an equal basis with men will be removed. There will still be the hurdle of changing the culture but women will also need to decide whether they are willing to do the hard yards to make it to the top. Is that really what they want?

Finally - and closer to home for me - what of the legal profession in 2050? I think lawyering will continue to become more and more specialised, so we will all be specialists in public, employment, intellectual property, commercial or other kinds of law. Increasingly clients are paying not for opinions but for outcomes that solve their problems. So lawyers need to be careful that they are not reduced to just going to court, but that they are problem-solvers for clients, using the full legal toolbox, and can work effectively in multi-disciplinary teams.

For business, I think the best scenario is in-house lawyers to undertake that businesses' core work, and specialist lawyers brought in to peer review and to undertake the specialist areas that cannot be done in-house.

So the only guarantee in 2050 is that it will be different, but Christmas allows us to look beyond the next day, week and month to think longer term and to develop the vision we need to succeed in 2013.

The time to start reflecting and changing is after Christmas.


- Mai Chen is a partner in Chen Palmer and author of Public Law Toolbox.

- NZ Herald

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