In 1961 John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you … ask what you can do for your country.”
Over the last few years I think we’ve forgotten this message in New Zealand. We seem to look to the Government or others to make things better for us. In fact, as individuals, we need to make things better for ourselves. I travel a lot for work, primarily to the UK, USA and Australia. To me it’s very obvious that New Zealand is slowly getting worse. Education, healthcare, living standards and the number of hours we need to work to get by are all moving in the wrong direction. Our infrastructure is in a state of atrophy and we’re not even investing to maintain the same position, let alone keep up with investments happening in other countries.
Like the frog in the pot this is a gradual decline, hardly noticeable to the frog but very obvious to those outside. New Zealand’s decline is certainly very obvious to those outside, tracking us over the long term.
There is no burning platform, no one big issue to get upset about. But if we don’t act, we face death by a thousand cuts. Our lack of action is compounded by our low cost of leisure. It’s easy to have a fantastic lifestyle in New Zealand. While issues may grind us down, New Zealand remains special in that we can all have a millionaire’s lifestyle with easy access to beaches, parks, diving, boating, skiing. Almost anything outdoorsy is available to us, so we think things are not bad.
But they are. Take broadband. Kids in the USA have much greater access to technology and services. They are learning differently and have more opportunity. It’s the same in business. People in the USA work differently – good Internet infrastructure is taken for granted. In healthcare, people in other countries have access to treatment and specialists that we simply don’t. In Australia people invest in productive businesses. We choose non-productive investment property. Australian private equity companies have hollowed out New Zealand mid-sized businesses so the dividends flow back to benefit Australia. We work for wages and they get the upside. They also get our good doctors, nurses and teachers.
How do we turn this around? It’s actually pretty simple. We need to sell more higher value stuff overseas. We need to export more of our goods and services. And when I say we, I mean you. This isn’t someone else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem. It’s your problem.
Imagine if we changed our culture so that all New Zealanders felt personally responsible for increasing our exports? What would happen if we only wanted to work for companies that created export revenue or supported companies that did, or in businesses that aspired to not just service your local area but Melbourne, Hong Kong and New York? How would things change if all business owners felt obligated to be on a plane one week a month to build their business overseas and create those connections.
Imagine how much more satisfying dropping the boat in the water would be if you’ve just get back from LA on Saturday morning with some more orders for your business? What if the export culture was so strong in New Zealand that Telecom and Vodafone’s response to ridiculously high international roaming rates was to provide overseas SIM cards for you when you travelled? If the country were unified in increasing its value in the world, our tyranny of distance and small scale would become an advantage. We’d become boutique. Others would want to invest and live here. We’d compete for talent. New Zealand would be the best place in the world for global leaders to base themselves and in turn they’d contribute to further local investment. That would then lead directly to better education and healthcare.
We simply need to get started. An example of New Zealanders doing it for themselves is Pacific Fibre. Our newly proposed $US400m submarine cable venture will link Australia, through New Zealand, to the USA, bringing much needed competition to our digital trade route. You might argue such a massive, vital and obvious infrastructure project should be the responsibility of the Government, but it can’t compete with big business even if it has the best interests of the country at heart. So a number of individuals have got together to make it happen. As well as fixing the problem of our unreasonably high international broadband costs, Pacific Fibre will, I hope, inspire others to get out and make a difference. If you don’t fix things, then who will?
Another example is, Mogul, a web design firm in Havelock North. Its team is world class at building socially interactive websites. I’ve connected them to people I’ve met in my travels and they are now providing services into Australia. They are exporters. Xero already has a team of 17 people in Australia that complements the 100 in New Zealand. We’re building a global business. That means being on the road a few days a week and away from the family, late nights and early phone calls. Operating globally does takes some effort, but the rewards are worth it, and that’s what’s needed if we want to make New Zealand a better place.
We live in the best country in the world. We might be the furthest away from anywhere else and our scale might be small, but technology is making us closer and connecting us to huge markets. I truly believe we can turn the trends around, but all of us have to work on it. It’s 50 years since John F. Kennedy said those words, but they have never been more important for us in New Zealand. What are you doing to make New Zealand better?