What does success look like for New Zealand?

On a weekend filled with America's Cup and All Black action it's not exactly rocket science to conclude that sporting success is a big measure for many kiwis.

Then there's the actual rocket science. Peter Beck and his Rocket Lab team went to space from Mahia Peninsula last month.

Or, how about artistic glory? Lorde is set to hit number one on the US album charts next week according to Billboard magazine. Lisa Reihana is wowing critics at the Venice at Biennial.

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These are great shining feats of excellence but do they move New Zealand collectively to a better place?

Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson cut through all the national glory last week with his image of New Zealand as a speeding family stationwagon packed to the brim with awards and trophies.

A voice from the car expresses a nagging doubt that we might have forgotten something and on the side of the road a small child looks sadly on...left behind.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Emmerson's subject was the Unicef report on child poverty, in which New Zealand was topping the wrong sort of charts.

But his vision also captured a broader issue for us all, particularly in the world of business, finance and economics, as we race towards a wealthier more entrepreneurial future.

What is our destination? Is there consensus about it?

There's no finish line for nation-building but it makes sense to think about what we want our country to look like in 20 years' time.

It's one of the fundamental questions as we head into an election year.
In an interview (at the pub) this month I asked finance minister Steven Joyce what sort of country he was hoping New Zealand would be in 20 years.

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His answer was pretty compelling to me - perhaps because we have children of a similar age. He talked about building a country that can offer the next generation exciting, well paid careers - jobs that they'll want to stay in New Zealand to do.

On that front New Zealand has made great progress in the past 20 years.

I headed offshore on the big OE and when I came back in 2000 it wasn't with any certainty that it would be for good.

But I've watched New Zealand undergo remarkable transformation in the years I've been back. My kids can contemplate careers in industries that just weren't options for me growing up.

New Zealand has become a more open, diverse, entrepreneurial nation.

This was certainly John Key's vision for New Zealand, one that he tried to cap off - somewhat pointlessly - with a new flag.

That New Zealand is a more desirable place is confirmed not so much by the number of new immigrants but by the number young Kwis staying put.

Proof that we have left people behind only requires a walk up Queen Street and we shouldn't really need a Unicef report to see that poverty afflicting many children in poorer communities - just ask a teacher if you need some perspective.

The downside is that greater economic freedom can mean greater risk. We've moved at a break neck pace and we are victims of our own success.

Proof that we have left people behind only requires a walk up Queen St - and we shouldn't really need a Unicef report to see that poverty afflicting many children in poorer communities - just ask a teacher if you need some perspective.

National under Bill English seems to have woken up to this, belatedly.

But there remains fertile ground for a dynamic opposition to make the case for a more compassionate capitalism.

Unfortunately, fresh opposition ideas seem increasingly to be drowned by politicians talking about taking New Zealand back to a less dynamic time.

Did I say politicians? Well...you know where this is going.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has been quite explicit in calling the last 32 years of open, economic transformation a failure. He calls it neo-liberal and he clearly believes that New Zealand was a better place before the 1984 election.

Perhaps it was safer and more equal. I was a child but I remember people feeling angry and frustrated by level of control that politicians and bureaucrats had over their daily lives.

It's probably true that our controlled economy, artificial monetary policy, fixed currency and our regime of Government subsidies did create jobs.

I remember the outcry when the last shoe factory was forced to close after Labour's economic reforms. I also remember how ugly locally made shoes were (Charlie Browns anyone?) and I certainly don't know anyone who wishes their children still had the opportunity to work in a shoe factory.

Regardless, it doesn't matter of how wonderful, terrible or otherwise you think the past was - we can't go back.

There is no time machine.

I love nostalgia. I love the music and fashion of the 60s and 70s. Nostalgia is comforting and easy to sell.

But nostalgia is a fantasy land. And so are New Zealand First's policies of the past, whether they are a return to the state-sanctioned smacking of children or currency control, shoe factories or a bicultural society where Maori aren't treated as Tangata Whenua.

Hopefully the next few months will bring a vibrant election campaign filled with vision for the future, and new ideas to take New Zealand forward to a better place. Because going forward (to borrow an awful piece of business jargon) is the only way the world goes.