Can you feel it?

It’s the early stages of something called momentum. We’re starting to get things done. And it feels like we have some direction again.

It’s a direction that not everyone will agree with. That’s ok. That’s democracy. But the majority of us voted to get the country “back on track” and it feels like that’s starting to happen.

This weekend marks the six-month anniversary of our coalition Government being sworn in. We’ve seen the early enthusiasm, the first 100-day plan come and go, largely ticked off, and the next 100-day plan put in place. I suspect that, right now, the early euphoria of those in the hub of government is in the process of being replaced by a hefty dose of reality

Parliament might be in the school-holiday-induced recess, but that hasn’t stopped our leaders from working on the plan. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the Prime Minister leading a business delegation in Singapore, and our Minister for Agriculture and Trade pitching our wares in China. Once again we have a Foreign Minister who is prepared to front up to the rest of the world and tell our story.

It’s refreshing to see us back out there, hustling on behalf of our own country once again.

Back home, the momentum is building. Our biggest challenges are back in the spotlight. The changes to education have been well discussed and the new minister seems hell-bent on delivering some traction to what has been a neglected or misdirected sector. At the core of the strategy is to get kids back to school and back to the basics of maths, English and science on a daily basis. The good thing about the policy is that it makes sense to the great majority of us. And it’s underway.

Crime is the Government’s sights too, and this week we’ve had the announcement that the Three Strikes law is being re-instated. The new law will apply to violent offending and will be introduced into Parliament in June. Of course, as always, there are plenty of people saying that such policies don’t, or won’t, work. But the last Government tried the opposite. They proactively decreased the prison population and that didn’t work either. Crime quickly became worse. At least the current approach should see the bad guys off the streets until someone comes up with a better idea.

The Minister of Employment and Social Development has been busy too. Louise Upston is cracking down on people cheating the Jobseeker system. It’s no secret that New Zealand has a massive welfare bill, and anything that can be reasonably done to reduce that is highly desirable.

I don’t think there are too many of us who would disagree with the need to look after those who can’t help themselves. Any decent society must do that. But the trouble with our welfare system is the people who choose welfare as a lifestyle. We have almost 188,000 people on Jobseeker. That’s about 5.6 per cent of our working-age population. The minister describes 103,000 of those people as being able to work.

The Government has set a goal to reduce that Jobseeker number by 50,000 people over the next six years. The objective is to get more people in work and less on welfare. That’s hard to argue with.

And so, the minister is requiring those people to do everything they can to prepare themselves for work and to find a job. She says that they need to apply for jobs and turn up for interviews. She’s expecting people to “do their bit”. That means we need everyone who can be, to be a contributing member of society. Again, in a society where productivity is not our strong point, it’s an approach that’s difficult to argue with.

And of course, the Government is on a cost-reduction drive, a process that has already attracted plenty of headlines. Any situation that sees people losing their jobs is difficult to deal with. That is especially the case in the current economic environment where inflation and interest rates are weighing heavily on many of us.

But we have to remember that the public service has grown over recent years at a rate of 5 per cent per year. In the 12 months to June 2023, the public service grew by approximately 4000 fulltime workers. In the six months from June last year to December last year, ministerial managers saw fit to add a further 2582 fulltime personnel, despite the projected change of government and the likelihood that job losses would inevitably follow.

And so, to put the current job losses in perspective, those announced so far number just over 2800. That’s only a smidgen more than the number of government jobs added in the last six months of last year. I suspect there’s more to come. But as with education, crime and welfare noted above, at least we’re doing something about it.

But there’s plenty more to do.

Getting immigration settings right

One area that needs attention but doesn’t seem to be getting it is our immigration policy. The Government has moved quickly to make it easier for those with in-demand occupations such as nurses and teachers to get residency. However, beyond that, it seems that we’re losing too many people to overseas destinations, while we have new arrivals in what seems like ever-increasing numbers.

We live in a time when the US and numerous European countries are unable to secure their borders. Those desperate to leave the ravages of war or poverty are better organised than ever, and we’re seeing boatloads of immigrants “ram-raiding” the countries of their choice. Immigration policies are in tatters in many countries as a result, and immigrant-fuelled crime waves are providing a new and previously unforeseen reminder of their border woes.

In this regard, we should be grateful for our isolation. It’s hard to get here. We’re surrounded by ocean. Even the most hardened illegal immigration operation would have to come in through our airports which are more easily policed than beaches or deserts. But we should not be complacent about our border either.

The fact that we have more than 200,000 newcomers arriving in a 12-month period should provide cause for pause. While I recognise the value that immigration can bring, I’m also cautious about the need to bring in the right people. In other words, I’m not a fan of immigration for immigration’s sake.

There is no doubt that well-structured immigration policy can provide a fast track to sustainable population growth delivering qualifications, skills and know-how that we need to grow our economy and support the needs of our people. But we don’t need more low-skilled people who become destined for the scrapheap of temporary jobs or worse, unemployment.

Our immigration policy should increasingly target the people we need, rather than provide an open invitation to all and sundry. Where those skills are available and people mobile, we can offer a way of life that is wonderful by comparison to much of the world, especially at the moment. We should be using that natural advantage to rebuild our capability and expertise.

Housing solutions still needed

There’s another consideration to the immigration debate. Where do we put all these people? Housing is another big challenge inherited by this Government. It’s in the process of making life a bit easier for landlords in the hope that those landlords will fund further rental supply. The Government is introducing legislation to speed up approvals and consents for construction, and one would hope that the reduction in red tape can also deliver a much-needed reduction in building costs.

Emergency housing is costing the country a small fortune as well as costing us our once-thriving motel industry. Fenton St, the showcase motel mile in Rotorua where many of us holidayed as youngsters, is a shadow of its former self as its once-welcoming motels have been turned into ghettos of desperate families.

First and foremost the delivery of all housing, including but not limited to emergency housing, needs to be faster, cheaper and simpler. We need a more competitive supply industry and a recognition that properties do not all need to be engineered to withstand a “force 10″ building code.

Government is seldom the solution to all of our problems. But it is the most important enabler to deliver a growing economy and thus a stable and sustainable livelihood for our people. We have a relatively new Government and after six months there is a feeling that it has been quick to generate some early momentum in some critical areas.

However, alongside the early wins, there are plenty of challenges, of which housing and immigration are just a couple that come to mind. We have major issues in health, infrastructure, the future of our agricultural sector and the environment and more. Our challenge is to simultaneously build the country’s revenues while decreasing our costs and improving the delivery of services across the board. That’s not an easy playing field.

Somehow, the Government needs to bring us along with it. Its goals need to become our goals. Most of all we need to go back to a country with an aspiration to be better at this stuff. Better at providing a place for our people to live and work, to bring up their families and to have meaningful careers. Better at looking after those who need help, and ensuring that the lifestyle in this fantastic little country is accessible and affordable to those who choose to call it home.


This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald, 27th April 2024.

Bruce Cotterill is a professional director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book The Best Leaders Don’t Shout and host of the podcast Leaders Getting Coffee.