My father earned export income for New Zealand and so did his father, and his father before him. So do I. They earned it by putting in strainer posts, and shearing, and drenching, and dagging, and sewing up wool bales. I earn it by selling noughts and ones to Americans.
I have had a profitable dotcom since 1996. I earn US dollars for my country with a web site that instantly generates speeches for people. I'm not talking chump change here. It has supported our family for the best part of a decade.
When John Key speaks of a structural imbalance in the economy between tradeable and non-tradeable sectors, he means there aren't enough people earning export dollars. At such moments I feel self-righteous. Over here! Yes, me! The guy posting updates on Facebook! Follow me! I know what I'm doing!
I read the Very Important speech our Prime Minister gave this week with the strongest feeling of deja vu. There is a predictable structure to such a thing. You rehearse the country's profound economic problems, you express your belief in the innate capacity of Kiwis to overcome difficulties, then you recite the pick of the projects from your long work-in-progress list. What I recognised most was the familiar posture of relative impotence. I've seen it in the speeches of several Prime Ministers now: much is expected, little is offered.
This government has a term of about 1,000 days; it has already used up about 250 of them. How are things going? Let's paraphrase the speech.
We're not earning enough, our standard of living is off the pace, there's one mother of a recession going on and the government will only be able to do a little bit to help if you should become a victim of Depression 2.0. In the short run.
In the long run, the government wants to raise our standard of living and it has exciting new plans to make that happen. There then follows the laundry list of plans which come under six headings, varying from cutting red tape to "creating a world-class tax system".
Each of them is laudable, but as is so often the way in a Grand Vision speech, each one comes up short when you hold it up to the light.
Take the the prescription for export growth. The speech clearly describes the problem:
We like to think of ourselves as a trading nation, yet we export less as a percentage of GDP than many other small OECD countries. And that percentage has only grown slowly over the last 30 years. Over 90% of our exports come from just under 5% of exporters, and these exports are also very concentrated in a few sectors.
Hear, hear. Now, what's the remedy?
We are working on ways to best deliver an "NZ Inc" approach on the part of all Government agencies operating offshore. A seamless network amongst these agencies will best support our trade and economic interests overseas, with Government working alongside New Zealand exporters.…..
In terms of innovation, our emphasis is on promoting a stronger interactive relationship between the business sector and our publicly-funded research institutions. Universities and Crown Research Institutes need to be more responsive to the needs of firms. Our innovation system also needs to encourage firms to increase their take-up and application of research. One of our first initiatives in this area has been the Primary Growth Partnership. This will invest in significant research and innovation programmes across the primary and food sectors.
This sounds pretty airy to me. There's not room in this kind of speech for screeds of detail, but the few lines we're offered here suggest that even with a spare ten minutes to develop the themes you wouldn't get much more flesh on the theoretical bones.
This dotcom exporter has some suggestions he would like to make. The speech mentions Free Trade deals. Well, how about the monster one we signed with China? How about the ASEAN one that followed it? Where's the follow-through? Why are we not doing more to capitalise on the opportunity? Couldn't the government take a more active role in identifying openings and making business aware of the possibilities? There are some intriguing possibilities - in that region - in environmental management, in information technology, in tourism, in education. Read what Bronwen Evans, the former RNZ journalist who's now in Thailand, had to say when I interviewed her recently.
The possibilities are already there, and yet 90% or more of NZ businesses are ignoring them.
There's a very obvious hands-on role here for the government: get people thinking. That's a dimension of leadership, after all. Why not fund TV programmes that take an interest in exporting? I don't mean trite propaganda, I mean decent docos; current affairs reporting that gets out into the world and follows our exporters around; programmes that explore the possibilities of new markets. Where once we had Charlotte Glennie running a (admittedly one-woman) bureau for One News in Hong Kong, we now instead have that clown Dominic Bowden reporting live from Hollywood telling us what we should say in our prayers for Michael. What the fuck is wrong with this picture? Instead of making another show about people fighting over hair gel, why not make one that gets people thinking about a new way to earn their living?
Call it social engineering or propaganda if you must, but there is a shift in perspective that needs to take place here. More New Zealanders need to see themselves as exporters. More New Zealanders need to ask themselves: what could I be doing instead of this?
I look around my extended family and I see people doing work that is of little worth to the economy. I see them making money by flipping real estate, I see them making money by being the expensive just-add-water middle man. I look at them and I think: everyone's family network probably looks like this this. One or two exporters, a host of hangers-on.
The irony is that a lot of the wealthy hangers-on endorse the nostrum that the government's role is simply to "clear out the roadblocks and let New Zealand business get on with things". That's more or less the closing argument of Key's speech.
The problem is: with all the roadblocks out of the way, will any of those hangers-on actually do anything new? I have my doubts. Perhaps if that world class tax programme should include a capital gains tax, it might happen, but I'm not holding my breath.