For the first time in a generation, we now have two sides of the political spectrum that stand for very different things.

Traditionally, our two major parties have straddled the political centre and that has resulted in decades of very stable government. But as MMP has evolved, we are seeing fringe political parties becoming more extremist in their views and they are dragging their natural coalition partners with them, and away from that centrist line.

As a result, our two main parties are now further apart in terms of both politics and policy than they have historically been.

One of the challenges for our current Government is to deal with this broadening gap around the political centre. They should be seeking an opportunity to adapt our form of governing so that we can acknowledge the differences while maintaining a longer-term outlook.

As our challenges mount, that longer-term outlook is more critical than ever. The reason is simple. We can’t afford to keep chopping and changing long-term policy initiatives as governments change.

Instead, we need to develop a broadly agreed long-term view, or vision if you like, on major areas of government policy. A view that will ensure that the core elements of those policy areas can survive a change of government.

We were once in the top five countries in the world by most measures. Properly governed, we can be again. But we need to move away from our short-term thinking and develop some guiding principles. It might be some form of charter. A visionary document that ensures the continuation of core themes within government policy, irrespective of who might be in power.

The issue became obvious for the first time with the arrival of the last Labour-led Government in 2017. We saw rapid reversals such as the scrapping of charter schools, cancelled roading projects and the elimination of our mining industries.

The most recent change of government last year saw the abrupt halt to years of work around Auckland’s light rail, and the replacements for the Interislander ferries cancelled. The recently established Māori Health Authority and Te Pukenga were similarly curtailed.

While the outcomes of such decisions probably satisfy the then-relevant party faithful at the time, the reality is that little is achieved as a result. A lot of money is spent, on ideas and projects that are ultimately cancelled, with nothing left to show for it.

New Zealand will never get anywhere if we have repeated three-year cycles of policy switches. Some would suggest such a situation can be overcome by a longer – say four- or five-year – political term.

But I suggest the problem is bigger than that.

We need to identify the major policy areas where we should be able to take a constructive long-term view, irrespective of political leanings. That means identifying priority areas, and core themes within each of those areas that the majority of us can agree to. In the current political landscape it means that, at the very least, the two major parties would agree to certain parameters for a long-term planning horizon – say 10 to 20 years.

At the top of the list of priority areas will be the usual political footballs. Health, education, crime, immigration and infrastructure are all suited to a longer perspective.

The first few things to agree on are some clear statements of intent. For example, most of us would probably agree that we would like to live in a low-crime environment. That statement alone has implications for how our population is expected to behave, our policing strategies and our attitudes to gangs and drugs.

After that, we would probably quickly agree that we want to be part of a well-educated society. One where a basic understanding of English, maths, science and technology is a given. We recently heard that roughly a quarter of new teachers had failed NCEA Level 1 maths. Unless we fix that stuff, we are consigning the next generation of school pupils to a similar fate. So, as a starting point, we want a population that is well-grounded in the educational basics. But we want more than that, too. A focus on preparing all Kiwis for their life ahead. Finance skills. Technology skills. A clear understanding of history and some knowledge of our trading partners. I’m sure a clear vision could be assembled quite quickly.

And while we’re at it, let’s make a clear decision on charter schools. Are they in or out? If they’re in, let’s give investors a clear steer on what’s required and provide them with the cross-party comfort that, as long as they deliver to those standards, their investment is safe from government interference.

Similarly, we need to be able to ensure that all people calling New Zealand home, living in this most unique and welcoming environment, are able to enjoy good health. That means a clear focus on delivering “best in class” healthcare facilities and services. Facilities that are properly maintained and services that are appropriately resourced. A level of certainty that treatment is available to those who need it when they need it. That the best medicines the scientific world has to offer are available. We should acknowledge the benefits of a healthy population. One which costs less to maintain, is more energetic and productive, and is less likely to be disenfranchised by “the system”.

Immigration should be a function of the society we want, rather than our society being a function of the immigration we have. What type of society do we want? For the most part we already have plenty of people, and a fantastic mix of ethnic diversity. But we are really struggling to attract the skills that we need for our highest-priority areas. Our immigration efforts should be primarily charged with ensuring that our population levels are manageable relative to our resources, and that we have the right mix of skills to support our most important services.

As previously noted in this column, we are short of doctors, nurses, teachers, police, truck drivers and so on. People with these skill sets, who fit our other visionary criteria of good character, good health and good education, should then become our immigration priority. The good news is we don’t have a massive population to cope with, and realigning our population mix to something that most of us can agree on should not be too difficult.

Once we’re clear on our population plan, we can look at our infrastructure needs. Transport is the starting point. How do we ensure our people can get to where they need to go? Like it or not, roads are clearly our mainstay. They provide the method of transport that we use most often. So the roading network must be maintained and upgraded as appropriate to serve the population.

If roads are the core, what are the ancillary services that complement that? In cities like Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington, there is another highway that can be used. It’s the water. So let’s acknowledge that ferry services should fit in alongside the road-based infrastructure where the geography allows. Cook Strait is a vital link. We need a solid long-term plan for that. Do we leave it to private operators to provide that link? Or does the Government have to play an ownership role through KiwiRail and our ferries? That said, we also need a cross-party agreement on the long-term role of our very costly rail operator.

Our infrastructure outlook should provide for a long-term plan that will deliver hospitals and schools of both quality and quantity that are fit for the purpose outlined in the charter for those services.

I hope we can see that the long-term decisions around this stuff need long-term commitments to a set of principles. It’s important to try to get undertakings that such principles will not be sidelined by a change of government or a change of policy. We need to be clear that an extremist party in a coalition government cannot undermine our key objectives around core services.

I often say that the starting point for any organisation is to be clear about what they are trying to achieve. For a country like ours, the answer to that question is multi-dimensional. But we have to start somewhere. These five areas might be our biggest priority areas. So why not start there? Let’s get the two main political parties around a table and try to understand what they can agree on, instead of listening to the pointless debate about what they don’t agree on.

And so we might envision a country with well-educated people, who enjoy the lifestyle their unique setting offers and the good health that goes with that, low crime rates and a balanced immigration strategy that ensures an appropriate level of population and access to world-class talent.

Is it too much to hope for? Possibly. Utopian exuberance? Perhaps.

But it’s worth a try.


This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald, 8th June, 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.