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Insights 30: 11 August 2017
Next Generation Debates: Wellington grand final
What we expect the next government to tackle
Dr Oliver Hartwich: Election should not be about Turei, texts or family plans

A culture of debate
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
The Prime Minister had the “personality of a rock”. The Minister of Health was “Dr Death”. The Minister of Finance was “as authentic as a $4 Rolex”. And the Foreign Minister had “the energy of a small hill”.

These are some of the insults hurled at the government by Labour’s new Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis on TV last weekend.

As I watched Mr Davis’s blast on the Q+A programme, I wondered how long it must have taken him to rehearse these lines.

My second thought was this incident tells us about New Zealand’s political culture.

It is not too surprising to hear a senior politician call his opponents names. That sometimes happens in the heat of a debate.

But it is astonishing that such name-calling would occur in such a seemingly scripted manner during a TV interview.

Though passion is a positive, there is a difference between a strong argument and unnecessarily personal attacks. It does not reflect well on New Zealand’s politics.

Kelvin Davis’s Q+A incident reminded me of a prize just established in Germany, the “SENSS Award for Discussion Culture”.

Donated by entrepreneur Reinhard Wiesemann, SENSS stands for “Seid Euch nicht so sicher!” (“Don’t be so sure!”).

As Wiesemann describes it, his intention was to highlight the need for a kind debate between people of different beliefs. No-one person should believe that they alone possess the truth.

The award is not meant to promote tolerance or to declare who won debates. Instead it shall only remind people to be kind to one another in public discourse.

Wiesemann’s initiative is welcome, and perhaps we should have something like it in New Zealand as well. A reminder that political debates need to be civil and focused on the arguments is timely.

And though we do not have an award for civility in public discourse yet, the Initiative of course hosts an annual debating tournament. It has the same motivation of promoting good debate.

In fact, the two public semi-finals will take place in Auckland and Wellington next week.

To win these debates, our teams need to make their cases well. Insults will not win you the adjudicators’ applause.

We look forward to hearing from our panellists David Seymour (ACT), Julie-Anne Genter (Green), Hon Peter Dunne (United Future) and Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell.

It will be an opportunity to show that politicians can be kind to one another, even if they disagree strongly.

How radical is road pricing?
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
Elon Musk, of Paypal and Tesla fame, is boring a tunnel under Los Angeles. Musk believes he will be able to transport cars between L.A.’s West Coast and centre in five minutes.

Auckland is smaller than L.A., but perhaps it is time we raised our game.

Last weekend saw a flurry of pre-election announcements about Auckland transport; new roads and rail from National, and a new fuel-tax funded, light-rail line from Labour.

More of the same is all well and good, but it is also an expensive way to address Auckland’s reality: that too many people want to use the same roads at the same times.

Labour’s proposal, of adding a few cents to Aucklanders’ petrol prices will undoubtedly cut car usage at the margin, but it will not change the times of day when people want to travel. In fact, those people who travel off-peak will be penalised just as much as the others. And some drivers on low incomes will be taxed off the roads altogether.

So why does anyone, let alone Labour, push for higher fuel taxes, rather than road pricing?

Perhaps it has something to do with the egalitarianism of queuing. Everyone, no matter what car they drive, shares in the frustration of congestion. Superior wealth (unless perhaps you are Elon Musk) cannot get you to work any quicker than the next man. And in a country that aspires to equality, and a city where house-prices make a mockery of that aspiration, congestion does hold some appeal.

However, as seductive as this argument might sound, politicians would do well to ignore it. Queuing’s effectiveness, as a method of rationing, was disproven by the USSR.

If Aucklanders were ever reluctant to be early-adopters of road pricing, this argument is also long out of date. Singapore first introduced congestion charging in 1975; followed by London in 2003; and Stockholm in 2007.

Perhaps the hesitance is because rapid advances in technology, like electric cars and Uber, are changing the way we travel. But for every technology that might cut vehicle usage, there are another two that will increase it. And innovations will always be with us; such a reality should not paralyse decision-making today.

Musk’s futuristic prescriptions may be some way off, but governments should not wait for silver bullets solutions. Because in the meantime Aucklanders are waiting, and the efficiencies of road pricing are right here under our nose.

Donít forget to breathe
Jenesa Jeram | Policy Analyst |
As loyal readers might be aware, The New Zealand Initiative has long been concerned that there is a real scandal in New Zealand education. Some of our most vulnerable kids are leaving school without the skills they need to get ahead in life.

No, I’m not talking about literacy and numeracy – although they are important too. I am talking about something even more basic.

It appears the kids of today do not even know how to smile and breathe.

Luckily, over 200 schools in New Zealand are already rushing to remedy this problem with their ‘Pause, Breathe, Smile’ mindfulness programme.

Now admittedly, even I struggle with these tasks sometimes. Because of my lack of mindfulness study, I fear my smiles come across more like grimaces. To be perfectly honest, even the thought of being forced to take a mindfulness class has provoked an emotion which I think is rage.

One of the lessons, titled ‘Everything for the first time’ sounds particularly compelling: Using creative role-play for looking at the world with curiosity and interest. Using creative role-play to feign interest sounds like a valuable workplace skill.

No doubt there will be some who question whether it is the role of schools to teach children the joy of stopping to smell the roses. But the comments from one middle school principal are convincing: ‘school wasn't just about learning subjects, but also making pupils better people.’

Amen to that. I look forward to my future children being able to earn NCEA credits for essential activities like ‘giving a genuine compliment’ or ‘doing someone a favour with no expectation of reward’. Frankly, the world might be a better place if some students were held back from graduation until they could prove they were good people.

Never mind the fact that the evidence-base for mindfulness instruction is patchy at best. Or that there are trade-offs: teachers do not have an infinite amount of time to teach everything from the traditional subjects like literacy and numeracy to less traditional subjects like healthy eating. Or that unequal outcomes in educational achievement can lead to other inequalities later in life.

But as my colleagues waste their time grappling with policy issues like how to improve New Zealand’s education system, I can at least aspire to be a source of inspiration to them all.

Next time they look a little frustrated, I will remind them to pause, breathe and smile.
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