Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I want to be,
Pony trekking or camping,
Or just watching TV.
For those too young to remember, those were the opening lines of a classic ditty sung by Michael Palin when he was more famous for being a carefree comedian than an affable travel guru. And it has to be said that Palin and the Monty Python crew did a much better job of poking the borax at the Finns than Gerry Brownlee managed in Parliament recently.
Not only was Brownlee particularly unfunny, but on many points he was laughably wrong. However, the real lesson politicians should take from his buffoonish behaviour is not the need to avoid diplomatic incidents. It is the perils of naming any country as one we should emulate.
Presumably, David Shearer thought hard about mentioning Finland in his first big speech as Labour’s new leader. So comparing himself to former Finnish Prime Minister Esko Aho was a curious choice, given that Aho was turfed out of office after just one term. What Shearer seemed to be saying is he is someone who is prepared to make the tough calls. And that once again, Labour intends to push the high-tech sector as one of our potential saviours, partly through a new focus on education.
It is certainly true that Finland’s focus on education helped transform its economy by allowing it to become a leading player in the mobile phone market. And for a long time now, we have talked about creating our own Nokia in New Zealand. So long, in fact, that the company has since lost much of its shine. As Finland’s main newspaper noted just a few days ago, its deal with Microsoft is widely regarded as a shotgun marriage of two companies struggling to stay relevant in a fast-changing world.
On the bright side, the culture that created Nokia also helped a Finnish company create wildly popular video game Angry Birds. Creating our own such clusters, as Shearer acknowledges, is yet another goal we’ve had for ages, with limited success. People, he conceded, have grown tired of hearing about it.
But is it any wonder the public has become so sceptical when politicians seem so faddish in their enthusiasms? It was, after all, a Labour Government that decided more than two decades ago that agriculture was a “sunset industry”. Four years ago Labour changed its mind, and announced a $700 million fund intended to stimulate research and development in our primary industries.
According to the then Minister of Economic Development, Jim Anderton, its MPs had become disillusioned with the high-tech sector. “We gave those things a real run and we put up a lot of money,” he said at the time. “We’re not going to be the Switzerland of the South Pacific and we’re not going to be a Nordic haven. In truth that was always bullshit.”
In truth, that statement raised eyebrows even in his own caucus. But in any case, the fund was quickly scuppered when National got into office. And Labour is back to namechecking Finland, Singapore and Israel. Perhaps we should be grateful that Ireland, at least, is no longer on the agenda. Ireland’s most recent miracle is that it became a poster child for austerity when its economy pulled out of a nosedive last year. It has since sunk back into recession. However, it has just struck commercial quantities of oil off its own coast for the first time, and finding more oil does indeed seem to be a key part of the Key Government’s plan.
Of course we should be ambitious about our own future, and we should learn from others’ successes. But in our constant quest to find other countries that have turned their fortunes around, we are often far too selective about their circumstances. And it is all too easy to forget that despite our problems, New Zealand is not such a bad place to live, particularly in the wake of the global economic crisis.
Last year, Auckland was named by international recruitment company Mercer as the world’s third-most liveable city. The Economist Intelligence Unit also rated Auckland in the top 10. Wellington, too, has had its moments in the sun, and although it’s in a sorry state now, Christchurch has the potential to eventually emerge as a truly world-class urban environment.
It would do wonders for our national self-esteem if we occasionally took just a bit more pride in what we do well, and stopped beating ourselves up quite so often about the colour of other people’s pasture.