Fri. Dec 3rd, 2021

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Liam Dann: New strategy offers Government chance for fresh start with business

4 min read

OPINION:

Covid-19 has turned everything upside down. You’ve probably already noticed, to be fair.

The weirdness struck me again this week while watching business leaders and Finance Minister Grant Robertson squaring off during the Herald’s annual Mood of the Boardroom showdown.

Business leaders are grumpy. And yes it’s true they are often grumpy with Labour governments.

For what it’s worth, they’re grumpier than they were last year.

But Robertson holds a trump card in this debate with the strength of all our big economic numbers holding up much better than anyone expected.

At the Mood of the Boardroom live session, we predictably heard him talking about GDP, unemployment and the relaxed attitude of markets and ratings agencies towards this country’s debt position.

All that solid stuff is forcing business leaders to argue on more emotive tangents – appealing for more understanding from the Government.

The weird thing is that it used to be the other way around – and not so long ago.

Back in 2018, business leaders were upset about the slowing rate of economic growth and Labour policy undermining the big economic numbers.

Meanwhile, the newly minted Finance Minister was pushing back on the grounds that we needed to start embracing broader definitions of economic success.

Wellbeing was the Government’s mantra.

So here we are, through the Covid looking-glass.

In my humble opinion, both sides of this debate had a point back in 2018 and both sides have a point now.

Robertson is right to celebrate the relative strength of our topline economic performance.

But business leaders are right to highlight a deeper layer of stress and economic failure going on below the reach of the topline data.

The despair in some sectors is real and it’s getting worse.

It’s a shame that relations have deteriorated.

In an admittedly off-the-cuff quip, Robertson described the survey feedback as a mix of the “insightful and offensive”.

It wasn’t inaccurate. There was anger in the Mood of the Boardroom comments this year.

It was born of frustration around the perceptions that the Government is unresponsive and – sometimes – uninterested in private sector solutions.

There are some fundamental divisions around our pandemic strategy that won’t be resolved.

But with the strategy shift of the past few weeks, perhaps they don’t need to be.

There is an opportunity to rule a line over past differences.

In this more nuanced phase of the pandemic response, there would seem to be more opportunity than ever for business and the Government to work together.

The challenges we will face in the coming months as we look to reopen the economy – the easing lockdown rules, opening regional borders or international borders – are more complex than ever.

They require smart, pragmatic ideas and solutions, these will require rapid development and implementation.

I don’t want to be naive about it.

I don’t for a minute think that a Labour government is going to suddenly start taking broad policy direction from business.

And I certainly don’t think business is about to start cheerleading a Labour government.

Conflict around fundamental ideological differences, like Fair Pay Agreements, aren’t going away.

Business is always going to be in favour of less regulation and red-tape.

But these perennial battles aren’t the ones we’re fighting right now.

We all want to ease lockdowns, we all want to open up, we all want to minimise the health impact of Covid-19.

We have clear, common goals.

Where business leaders and government often sit differently is on risk appetite.

But then, ultimately, we all do.

If you talk long enough to your best friend you’ll find a point of difference.

When friends clash on Covid risk assessment we tend to laugh and move the conversation along.

That’s basically what business and the Government need to do now.

What is crucial is that they keep talking.

It is worth remembering that neither business nor government are homogeneous groups.

Big business in this country tends to be represented by a relatively small group of high-profile directors and chief executives – the names that feature prominently through the Mood of the Boardroom survey.

Mid-sized and small businesses rely a great deal more on representation from industry associations and business lobby groups like the Employers and Manufacturers Association or the Business Chamber network.

There are many different tiers to government too.

While Robertson understands how the New Zealand economy works and he is clearly sympathetic (give or take a few ideological bottom-lines) to business woes, others in his Cabinet are not.

He has to fight his own internal battles.

You can also bet ministers have to fight to push policy changes through layers of bureaucrats with entrenched ideas about how things are done.

Beyond that, there is real tension around control.

This government seems wedded to central control and for better or worse that means private groups aren’t being given much freedom to put their own strategies into place.

The same criticism we hear from business leaders is now coming from iwi groups seeking more autonomy to drive vaccination programmes.

I’m hopeful the Government can soften its approach and open itself to more external collaboration as we head into the recovery phase.

I’m also hopeful that business will leave behind some of the gripes of the past year and continue to push for the opportunity to contribute.

New Zealand is a small country facing big challenges. We need to harness all the resources we have.

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