Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Learn how to fight, not how to fit in

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Tooth and claw competition is what we need, not John Key's mothering.

Writer Deborah Hill Cone believes Prime Minister John Key should encourage competition amongst businesses rather than trying to protect them from each other. Photo / Northern Advocate
Writer Deborah Hill Cone believes Prime Minister John Key should encourage competition amongst businesses rather than trying to protect them from each other. Photo / Northern Advocate

There has been a bit of a group-hug going on in the business world after the Christchurch earthquake. Which is sort of luffly.

It seems horribly churlish to complain about this outbreak of humanity or the nation's bromance with John Key at a time of tragedy. But, someone's got to be a seedy mean bitch and it may as well be me.

John Key seems to be becoming Muldoon-lite. Oh, he is still keeping up his "smile and wave" act, not grimacing or being "Piggy". But when it comes to business, it is starting to look a bit too darn cosy the way he mothers the big end of town.

Great if you are one of the handpicked coterie of business leaders who have his ear and are well placed for government largesse - no wonder the CEOs act as if they are either flattered to be part of Key's management team, or are suffering from a schoolboy crush.

The media too, come to mention it.

After the Christchurch earthquake there was a headline saying Key had met with a group of his pet CEOs. The tone was all "good work fullas" with a hearty slap on the back. Fair enough, but I can't help thinking it would be wise to bring a soupcon of scepticism to this means-to-an-end attitude to getting things done.

The justification is that being patriarchal is how you make things happen on a large scale - and that might be true in extreme cases. But the reaction to the Christchurch quake - bring in the big boys - is simply a more obvious example of Key's day-to-day approach to business and competition.

Key seems to think it is doing the right thing to protect a few big New Zealand businesses so they will be well placed to compete overseas; the argument that gave us Fonterra in the first place. Hmm, and didn't that work so well?

Similarly, we have nurturing treatment for the likes of Telecom, Air New Zealand and Fletcher Building and so on.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I am not sure that being palsy-walsy and sympathetic is the way you create internationally competitive and innovative companies.

The way to make our businesses productive is more like the red-in-tooth-and-claw bloodiness you see on Sir David Attenborough's current wildlife documentary, Life.

Challenge is what makes businesses excel, not a spa visit. In nature that means threats to survival; in business that means opening up sectors to real competition not namby-pambying them. There are whole parts of our economy in which products are overpriced and innovation is moribund - building a house here is tooth-achingly expensive compared to similar countries, and ask any hungry visitor what they think of our food prices and they will roll their eyes.

Being all chummy sounds good when we are all in need of a cuddle after the horror of Christchurch but, as with the penguin or the grebe, be careful or we may end up as some other creature's lunch.

So Long, For Now

This is my last column for a bit. I am taking some time off to be a bit earth mothery and, oh so predictable, with a crazy idea to write a book. Although I probably shouldn't say that because it is jinx-like, similar to announcing you are going on a diet. I will probably go barmy in my garden so please stay in touch with me on my website deborahhillcone.com while I am away.

- NZ Herald

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