COMMENT:

Our self-confessed "belching and expectorating" Minister for Regional Economic Development has hit on a topic that should be front and centre for the Prime Minister's new Business Advisory Group — the performance of some of NZ's biggest firms.

If the Prime Minister and Christopher Luxon are smart, they will take on board Shane Jones' underlying messaging which, while delivered with a total lack of couth, is resonating in provincial New Zealand.

That's the crux of Jones' continued onslaught against some of NZ's biggest companies and their leaders.

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Despite an internationally stellar performance, Air New Zealand, which is led by Luxon, remains in Jones' sights because of its pricing strategies on provincial routes and the withdrawal of some services. The Warehouse chair Joan Withers earlier copped an unfair spray over a proposal to withdraw from Kaikohe after its tussle with a local landlord.

Fonterra's former chairman John Wilson was reamed out at Fieldays over the co-operative's losses, and this week Jones added "skinflint Aussie banks" to his target list, accusing them of ripping out $5 billion in profits from New Zealand each year at the same time as they were withdrawing provincial town services.

New Zealand corporates find this deeply shocking from a serving Cabinet Minister.

But the days of CEO lionisation are long gone in political quarters.

While most business leaders prefer a little ego stroking to the "Jones boy's" attacking style, they will have to harden up as it is obvious Jacinda Ardern has made no move to rein him in.

In essence, there is a growing sense that it's not just the Government that needs to pull its weight.

Jones launched his latest verbal spray at the Air NZ boss after Ardern announced this week his appointment as chair of her Prime Ministerial Business Advisory Group. Jones accused Luxon of "being a celebrity".

That was probably a case of mistaken identity on Jones' part as Luxon — unlike his predecessor Rob Fyfe — has never stripped naked and covered himself in body paint for an Air New Zealand video promo.

The company did part sponsor Barack Obama to visit New Zealand for a speaking engagement which Jones attended. But that also stuck in his craw.

His onslaught on RNZ's Morning Report would have left listeners in no doubt that Luxon is his favourite bete noire.

That the Prime Minister did not consult Jones on the formation of the council — and more to the point, it would appear his boss Winston Peters was also not in the loop — would have rubbed the point in.

Yet Jones does wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to provincial New Zealand.

Behind the scenes, Air New Zealand is already responding to this by looking at how they can make it easier for other airlines — like Air Chathams — to share some airline services to make it easier to pick up the provincial slack.

Jones is looking to align SOEs (he is the associate minister) with his other ministerial responsibilities for Infrastructure and Regional Economic Development.

The argument is this will enable Jones to exert influence on SOEs to play a larger role in supporting regional economies.

It would be wise for other large companies who will join Luxon on his council — including the banks — to turn their spotlight back on themselves.

For instance, are they being short-sighted in closing branches when, with the right amount of focus, provincial New Zealand might yet boom? Is there an option to share "shop fronts" in provincial areas in the way rental car services do at airports? What else could be done to benefit provincial New Zealand if the smartest brains in NZ business make it a focus?

But it needs to go further.

A paper by Paul Conway, Can the Kiwi Fly? Achieving Productivity Lift-off in New Zealand, delves into New Zealand's poor long-run productivity performance. (The report is on the NZ Productivity Commission's website).

Conway suggests a number of high-level policy suggestions aimed at countering the economic forces that have constrained productivity, including opening the economy to new opportunities for international connection, and encouraging capital deepening, greater competition and more effective innovation.

"Getting this right requires a deep understanding of New Zealand's productivity track record and potential in the 21st century global economy and presents a major challenge for the New Zealand public sector against the background of ongoing changes in technology and in the global trading environment," Conway says.

The report makes stern reading. For instance, it quotes a study which found that capital per hour worked in the market sector of the New Zealand economy was almost 40 per cent lower than in Australia in 2010, with New Zealand firms investing considerably less per hour worked in 19 of the 24 industries included in the study.

This was found to account for 39 per cent of the transtasman gap in labour productivity.

In particular, weak investment by New Zealand's largest firms was said to reflect governance issues. Among firms with $1b-plus turnover, there is a prevalence of farmer-owned co-operatives and partly-privatised state-owned enterprises.

A common factor across these firms is a reluctance to provide capital for growth and a strong aversion to risk, especially associated with expansion into overseas markets.

There's plenty more besides. "Most obviously, public and private investment in R&D as a share of GDP is among the lowest in the OECD, with New Zealand's large firms performing particularly poorly. In part, this reflects the structure of the New Zealand economy and composition of exports, which are skewed towards low-R&D industries and products respectively."

Conway goes on to note that across all firms, "working on the business" is just as important as developing new and improved products in lifting productivity. This highlights the importance of management capability, which has been assessed as relatively poor in New Zealand.

In my opinion, getting a focus on these factors is just as important for the Business Advisory Council as being a bridge between business and the Government.

Despite his Trumpian tactics, Jones is shedding a useful spotlight on matters NZ business should discuss.

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