Fran O’Sullivan has written a column on the Dunes symposium, which we both attended last week, put on by the Business Roundtable. A lot of focus was on how to lift NZ’s productivity record (and hence national income) and Fran list’s six examples of bad behaviour:
- How the current Government has ignored the lessons of the 1980s-1990s relating to public sector management, to the detriment of economic efficiency.
- Alarming incursions by Cabinet ministers who have arbitrarily encroached on private property rights in the commercial arena.
- Cabinet ministers bypassing Treasury and commissioning advice elsewhere for the re-nationalisation of the railways, without any cost-benefit analysis of whether it made economic sense to do so.
- Telling examples of how Kiwi businesses are being tied in regulatory knots by the devolution of powers to overly aggressive bodies.
- The major decline in the health sector, where the budget has increased by 54 per cent in recent years yet the amount of elective surgery has declined.
- How the Beehive leaned on bodies such as the Electricity Commission and power generators to push prices up during the recent power “crisis” so that the Whirinaki back-up plant could be pulled into action, and then hammered them to drop prices.
I touched on some of these also, in my blog post on day one.
Also on day one was a good session on “bad law making” with several MPs (including one from Labour). Three examples were given of bad laws, and what drove them:
- Dog control – a response to demand
- Anti-smacking – elitism
- Electoral Finance Act – partisan politics
The dog control was cited by all sides as the classic “bad law” where a little girl gets bitten by a dog, the public demand the Government/Parliament do something, and hence micro-chipping is proposed as that “does something” to show MPs care about little girls bit by dogs. Only ACT voted against, and hence they are at 1% because the public think they don’t care about little girls being bitten by dogs!
Some incomprehensible or bad terms which should be avoided in laws was given, such as:
- Intrinsic values
- Treaty principles
- Workable competition
- Price sensitive info
- Must not abuse a dominant position
They all detract from the principle that the law should be obvious and certain.
One participant suggested that a Regulatory Responsibility Bill was needed to protect the public from “good intentions” of MPs, and that it would have a similiar effect as the Reserve Bank Act and Fiscal Responsibility Act.
The session on taxation was of course also interesting.
One senior partner in a major accounting firm talked about how he always welcomed new staff members by telling them, they had three duties – in order:
- A duty to themselves. A realisation that people work to further themselves, and that an employer needs to recognise this – that working for an employer is not the most important thing for an individual.
- A duty to New Zealand – that employees (and employers) should look at how they can contribute to New Zealand, that there was a moral obligation to contribute – not just to make money.
- A duty to the employer – this comes after the duty to yourself and New Zealand.
This might seem as a surprising position for a senior member of the Roundtable, but most of them are passionate about advocating for policies which will result in a better NZ, and that pushing for better tax policies, is part of this. That pushing for better tax policies, is not about pushing for more or less tax, but a more efficient and equitable tax system.
He defined the efficiency of a tax system as how to collect maximum revenue at minimum cost, and that the current system was a long way off this. The equity side can be met through a combination of tax and welfare.
Day Two also saw a debate between the Victoria and Auckland University Debating Clubs on the moot that Australia is the luckier country. Auckland affirmed and Victoria negated.
Auckland were somewhat helped by Roger Kerr introducing the topic with some slides which basically showed how Australia was kicking NZ’s arse in most areas. This didn’t stop Victoria University from a spirited defence of NZ.
In debating you often have to argue a proposition you don’t personally believe in. But never has this been funnier than seeing Christopher Bishop not just argue for how NZ in the last decade has done better than Australia, but when he starting promoting the benefits of the Swedish big state model, it was just too much for me. Maybe I could handle Bish promoting Swedish models, but not The Swedish Model. When they asked for questions at the end of the debate, I could not resist asking him if he actually believed a single word he had uttered during the debate. He could find only one sentence he stood by
I used to take part in debating at school and university also. Back then (God that makes me feel old) you could interject at any time, so loud funny interjectors could be devastating. It did often stop the smooth flow of a debate, so I was interested in the convention that has developed where if you wish to interject you stand up, and the speaker at the rostrum either tells you to sit down, or allows your interjection. It looks bad to refuse all interjections so each speaker normally allows a few and responds quickly to them.
The way the speakers dismiss an attempted interjection is quite amusing, as they just say “No, sit down” or make a sit down signal with their hands as they continue speaking. Polly from the Vic team was the best at dismissing interjections as her “No thank you Sir” was delivered with wonderful contempt, and in a tone you would use to instruct a canine.
The honours were shared, with attendees voting that they agreed with the Auckland team, but that the Vic team had performed the best with their argument.
Also on day two, the participants heard from a National and Labour candidate who talked about and answered questions about the future faces and directions of National and Labour. Both candidates were in their 20s or early 30s and performed well, with an interesting observation that as the newer candidates were at school during the ideological big battles of the 1980s and 1990s, they expect there will be less acrimony between them as the start to move into Parliament over the next few years.
People have all sorts of pre-conceived ideas about the Business Roundtable. Some on the left try and paint it at the centre of every conspiracy theory they have. But the reality is the NZBR is quite ordinary. Like thousands of other organisations they divided into small breakout groups, and workshop on flipcharts ideas for improving public policy which get reported back into the main session. There is no secret cabal setting the agenda – in fact the senior established order at the Roundtable seem more open to new ideas and new ways to operate, than most organisations I have observed.
I don’t agree with the NZBR on every issue. Far from it. But I do think our public policy debate in NZ is much stronger for having their input, and that it will be a welcome day when people debate their ideas, not supposed agendas.