“Today’s event is all about getting you excited to turn up for something and then telling you you’re on the Titanic.”
That was entrepreneur-investor Selwyn Pellett, one of the speakers aboard The Voyage of a Lifetime – an ambitious allegorical presentation of the plight facing the New Zealand (and global) economy, at Auckland’s Q Theatre on Sunday afternoon.
If you squinted, you really could have been at sea a century ago. There was the captain’s wheel, the life-boats, the funnels, the fog. And the iPads.
The event, presented by the Fabians in association with Public Address and Scoop, attracted a full-house – indeed, tickets (free tickets, that is) were snapped up with four days of its announcement. The Labour party’s admiralty was out in force, with all three Davids, Shearer, Parker and Cunliffe in attendance (though David S jumped ship fairly early on) along with Jacinda Ardern and Charles Chauvel, in the house to hear a series of presentations on the icebergs New Zealand is sailing towards.
The global financial crisis had put into sharp relief New Zealand’s challenges, the panellists/sailors agreed. There was over-reliance on the farming sector, insufficient investment in innovation, in research and development, and a gathering burden massing for future generations. Austerity, all agreed, was no way out of the doldrums.
Michele A’Court broke the ice – as it were – by drawing on her economic expertise (sixth form economics prize, apparently) to generate a few laughs. “Comedy is my job,” she said, “but economics is my passion.”
A’Court was the charm before the storm: thereafter, the prognostications of the crew, ably navigated by Russell Brown, were mostly terrifying.
Pellett set the scene with a warning that the New Zealand economy is “tracking at high speed towards dangerous icebergs”. The trouble, like that of the Titanic 100 years ago, is placing full faith in the myth of unsinkability. Like the Titanic, there is no Plan B.
Arena Williams, president of the Auckland University Students’ Association, railed at “generational inequity”, pointing up the stalling of social mobility implicit in the cost of going to university, getting on the property ladder and so on. “We live in a patronage society,” she said.
The iceberg identified by Rick Boven was a melting one – but all the more damaging for that. The dependence on fossil fuels to grow economies with swelling populations was a truly existential problem, he said.
Next came the avuncular John Walley, chief executive of the NZ Manufacturers and Exporters Association. “We make mistakes when we know we’re right,” he said. New Zealand had all its eggs in one basket, had binged on private debt, mostly through land and home ownership, and relied far too heavily on the primary sector – a sector distorted in all directions. Servicing the debt on that land saw profits head overseas, leaving the country all the poorer.
And the co-operative model of Fonterra was another part of the problem, driving as it does “volume over value”.
Rod Oram once again proved that he is an economist with a cabaret star fighting to get out by taking to the stage with lights for port and starboard, and an extended metaphor about Michael Laws and the Mongrel Mob, effortlessly segueing into an account of the chirpy, unwitting final Telegaphic messages sent from the Titanic. All by way of illustrating his central argument: that “we live and die by the messages we choose to send and receive”.
He went on to argue that we – or more specifically the Overseas Investment Office – should be more discerning when it comes to separating that which will help New Zealand and that which won’t.
And as a final flourish, Oram painted a compelling picture of the kind of thing we should be doing, conjuring up a bright new building in Christchurch, with cows grazing on a grass roof; scientists – from New Zealand and China – beneath working on advanced lactic innovations; and another floor below, a hospital connected clinic coducting related medical trials.
Bernard Hickey of Interest.co.nz was last in line. “I feel a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said, hopefully, before launching into a persuasive account of the “design flaws” in the New Zealand and global economy. What needs fixing? We need to share incomes better, definancialise our banks (including by a transaction Tobin tax, if necessary), use idle resources, stop hoarding and lift output.
All the way through, Lance Wiggs was sitting in the stalls, his laptop fired up, busily tweeting mini-broadsides at the sailors. And just as well, too. There is always a danger at events such as these that you get a bit of an echo-chamber effect, or in the spirit of the event, that the ship can list too much to one side.
Wiggs spoke up during the Q&A. “You’ve all been horrifically negative”, he said, and asked the contributors to come up with something positive about New Zealand. The response was, in essence, that there is plenty positive about New Zealand and that is precisely why it is so important to keep it away from the icebergs; it wasn’t doom, it was data, they were delineating. Wiggs sat shaking his head through most of the answers.
Boven had the best line to wind up on. New Zealand remained the “best place in the world to navigate what’s happening”, he said, true to metaphor to the end. The challenge was to remake a society that moved beyond naked self-interest.
“I’m quite excited that we can carve out a new way of living.”
You might be able to watch the thing here – though there’s a length prelude to sit through before it begins, if it does at all. I’ll update/embed if a better version pops up anywhere.