Deborah Hill Cone: Cycle tracks and 9-day fortnights: So where's the Big Idea?

Gardening is sexy in these frugal days - thrifty, muskily earth-motherish and, obviously, green. Don't worry, I am not doing a Germaine Greer - as the foxy feminist hit menopause she loudly gave up sex for the sensual pleasures of potting mix. Me, I am bollocks at gardening but I do know one small thing about the psychology of growing stuff.

The important thing to remember is that it is far more satisfying and exciting to decant ready-made foliage which you bought at the garden centre - here's a subtropical paradise I made earlier - than it is to do the painstaking and slow-mo work of nurturing plants, watering them every day, re-potting them, feeding them, pruning them and all that dreary stuff.

It is even more fun to chop things down. Give a man a chainsaw and testosterone will positively seep from his pores. This might seem a daring glimpse into the obvious, but I wonder if the Government understands it. I didn't go to the lovely jubbly jobs hui but there didn't seem to be much about the boring growing bit. There is a slow food movement, but where is the slow government movement?

John Key's approach is certainly in step with the competition commissioner of the EU, Neelie Kroes, whose Big Idea is to put people in training rather than sacking them. "Where factories face temporary downturns in demand, why not increase opportunities for training or retraining? That would be better than paying people not to work." Well, I have my own hairy, audacious Big Idea to share with the group.

Here it is: Big Ideas are plain stoopid.

The Government's job hui - a Big Idea itself - was a success, Prime Minister John Key said, because it produced "ideas galore", such as building a bike track. Well huzzah; let's move into the top half of the OECD, Mercs all round.

Here's the thing. We already know what we need to do to improve the economy - the boring gardening chores like increasing productivity and exporting more. But these ideas are not seductive at all. They involve dreary old hard slog rather than having a delightful day off to get a self-improving manicure.

Take productivity growth - the economic indicator which tells us our potential for a sustainable increase in living standards. The most recent figures I could find - for the year to March 2007 - showed labour productivity in the measured sector grew by only 0.5 per cent. In 2000-07, while the world economy boomed, our annual labour productivity growth in New Zealand averaged only 1.1 per cent, much less than productivity growth in the 1990s. Admit it, your eyes are glazing over

already, aren't they? It's simply not as interesting as talking about building a cycle track around wineries.

There is that other dreary concept - actually flogging stuff to sell overseas and making some foreign exchange folding stuff. Since the days of intellectual capital and the knowledge wave, exporting actual widgets is uncool. But with governments preoccupied with uber-corporations tottering on their foundations, small businesses - and let's face it, that's most of our enterprises - barely get a look in. The nine-day fortnight idea doesn't look so bright for small exporters. And we know,

as Kroes points out, it's businesses that create jobs, not governments.

I am writing this in Argentina. Being in an economic basket case certainly focuses the mind on economic realities. Life is hard here and it makes me wonder if we are a bunch of lazy sods. We are certainly deluded if we think a bike track will solve our economic woes. There are lovely, lush gardens here though. Grown from scratch.

deborah@coneandco.com

- NZ Herald

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