The Prime Minister's powerful Business Advisory Council has delivered her a cutting message that Australia is "co-optimising" the economic consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak better than New Zealand.
"Australia is currently co-optimising the wellbeing of the Covid outbreak and the wellbeing consequences of the economy better than New Zealand," said council chair Fraser Whineray, who is chief operating officer at Fonterra. "If we don't marshall the best possible team for both recovery and reform, we will exacerbate the slide against our greatest comparator and lose even more of our most precious asset, our people."
"That risks a younger generation not only inheriting greater debt, but also makes Aotearoa a less desirable place to live with substantially less wellbeing. "
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Whineray told the Herald that while New Zealand was tracking well on specific Covid medical matters, "in the 'Wellbeing Bledisloe' we are behind".
The council's "wake-up call" came in a "concluding letter" from Whineray sent to the Prime Minister last Friday as the council formally disbanded ahead of the September 19 election.
Since early April, the council has been pushing Ardern to setup an organisation to mirror Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's high-powered National Covid-19 Coordination Commission, informing her that it did not believe her advisory council was the best placed for that purpose. Instead, it recommended members' capabilities - and that of many other business leaders – would be of most value to NZ's future in a properly mandated Business Recovery Taskforce and a Reform Commission "each chaired by a senior business person with great mana."
The Government had instead floated an Infrastructure group and a proposed entity comprising academics, unions, officials, NGOs and business.
In a not so subtle appeal to the Prime Minister's tendency to burnish her international brand, Whineray's letter said that putting in place a recovery taskforce and the reform commission would be a "courageous masterstroke for New Zealand's ascendant international reputation".
"With the likelihood of a year until a vaccine can take us out of our Pacific isolation, our approach would appear to be well short of the 'public:private' bench strength already assembled and operating across the Tasman.
"We refer in particular to Australia's National Covid-19 Coordination Commission established 25 March 2020".
The Australian Commission is chaired by Neville Power, a former CEO of Fortescue Metals and currently chair of Perth Airport, and supported by an executive board of directors comprising Greg Combet, Jane Halton, Paul Little, Catherine Tanna and David Thodey. Top officials such as Phil Gaetjens (Prime Minister and Cabinet) and Mike Pezzullo (Home Affairs) are also members. The Commission is working across business-to-business and business-to-government networks to unlock resources, break through bottlenecks and fix problems so Australian businesses and communities are supported
"Looking forward, because of the way Australia is approaching the next two stages it is like to go well in front," wrote Whineray. " We can choose to stick with our current strategy or look to reset.
"To avoid the endemic problem with the public sector's misallocation of new Zealanders' resources held by the Government in non-core activity and low productivity within the public sector we need a very strong business in involvement alongside central Government."
Last Friday, the Herald reported Ardern's business advisory council was coming out of its brief retirement to help with Robertson's plan.
The Prime Minister had told a BusinessNZ post-budget briefing she planned to "get it out of pre-election hibernation."
Her comments came the same day Whineray fired off the advisory council's "concluding letter' to her.
Ardern went on to tell the BusinessNZ Briefing that during lockdown she had sought the advice of some of its members in relation to the mooted Australia/ New Zealand trans-Tasman bubble.
This verges on disingenuous.
In the April 7 video meeting, the council presented on a range of issues advocating:
• Wellbeing is Underpinned by the Economy. The optimisation of Wellbeing involves two exponential functions of the direct Covid medical considerations and the virus of economic damage to citizens' long-term wellbeing; -
• Strengthen Health Technologies and the Border. Bringing much stronger technology and capability to four key public health areas of testing, tracing, modelling and stricter border arrangements allows greater wellbeing through the economy without compromising clinical outcomes; -
• Restart Economic Activity using the Existing Health and Safety Act. A proposal to bring more economic activity (public and private) back at all Alert Levels by using existing HSE legislation and a proposed sequence for restart. –
• Business at the Table of the Recovery and Reform. A proposal for very genuine and large-scale public-private sector collaboration with both a Business Recovery Taskforce and Reform Commission.
• Double Down on Trade. A very significant emphasis on trade as the trends of nationalism that were evident before COVID are unilaterally accelerating. While the rules of the game are increasingly uncertain, business and Government need to work the trade agenda very hard, particularly given the impairment to international tourism on the country's export income.
The council had earlier planned to wind up after its March 6 meeting, but decided to extend operations because of the Covid crisis.
The council's membership is comprised of: Whineray, Peter Beck (Rocket Lab), Barbara Chapman (Independent Director), Jacqui Coombes (Bunnings), Anna Curzon (Xero), Andrew Grant (McKinsey), Miles Hurrell (Fonterra), Bailey Mackey (Pango Productions), David McLean (Westpac), Joc O'Donnell (HW Richardson), Gretta Stephens (Blue/NZ Steel) and Rachel Taulelei (Kono).