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Insights 10: 1 April 2022
Newsroom: Eric Crampton says rushing emissions plan a costly mistake
Podcast: Celebrating ten years of The New Zealand Initiative
NZ Herald: IMF report into NZ economy 'cringeworthy praise', says Bryce Wilkinson

Challenging the state’s intellectual stranglehold
Rt Hon Sir Bill English |
Ten years ago, I had the privilege of launching The New Zealand Initiative.

I believed then and believe more firmly now that New Zealand needs institutions independent of government and the public purse to broaden and deepen our intellectual life.

In New Zealand, the state and its institutions dominate public life. It is difficult for the arts, culture, and civic life to operate without government resources.

Most of our intellectual capital is concentrated in government agencies, tertiary institutions, and state media. Nowadays, even private media accept government subsidies on the condition that they agree with the government on specific issues. 

There are limits to what each of these publicly funded institutions can do and say. Formerly powerful institutions, like churches, are no longer able to challenge the state. 

In our small and isolated nation, the unchallenged dominance of the state leads to passive compliance and intellectual sclerosis. 

In recent years, one of the most important challenges has been the revival of Maori institutions almost destroyed by the early New Zealand State. Independent iwi with a long-term perspective and the resources to back up their words will increasingly provide a counterbalance to the state. 

Another such counterbalance is the robust, privately funded New Zealand Initiative. With its independent viewpoint, it has consistently influenced public debate and created change through its intellectual capacity. 

Among the Initiative’s contributions are credible alternatives to Covid policy. It developed them by illustrating the trade-offs between public health and maintaining social cohesion. 

By campaigning on localism based on international experiences, the Initiative has helped to question and rethink the traditional paradigm of funding for local communities.

Education policy is the clearest example of the state’s intellectual stranglehold. The Initiative proved itself to be a serious research organisation by using integrated government data to slay some sacred cows about the dumb decile system and school performance. The Initiative’s work was sufficiently dangerous, no wonder it had to be officially ignored. 

In these times, standing out, offering advice, proposing ideas and criticising others requires courage. 

Public institutions and corporates dress themselves up in the language of wellbeing, transformation, equity and the just transition - language made meaningless by overuse and under-delivery. 

The New Zealand Initiative is at its best when it cuts through the fog of good intentions and gets to the nub of what actually happens or could happen. It has done an admirable job of maintaining clear economic principles while it grapples with politicised current issues.

I hope businesses and individuals will continue to fund The New Zealand Initiative and digest its output.
The Rt Hon Sir Bill English was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 2016 to 2017 and Minister of Finance from 2008 to 2016.

The debates we need to have
Josie Pagani |
It’s hard to have a reasonable debate today. So, hats off to the Initiative team on your 10th birthday for always being up for a fight.

I have fought with you on TV, radio, Twitter, and in the newspapers. We’ve rumbled over wages, housing, taxes, immigration. And like ‘mouth-ey’ street fighters who refuse to stop even when the crowds have gone, we’ve kept the punches going on email.

Your evidence challenges me. I’ve even changed my mind a few times. Maybe you have, too.

We need the disruption of think tanks like yours. Where else can we have a decent argument these days?

The Initiative deserves its reputation for good debate, and for reaching out to the unlike-minded as well as the like-minded. In our era of conformity, you stand out.

The more serious the issue these days, the shallower the public debate – and the less reasonable the conversation. Motives get attacked rather than arguments. Attack the long-term viability of our Covid elimination policy in 2020, for example, and you were accused of wanting to kill off grandma.

This is a play right out of Stalin’s book (as Russia is on our minds right now). Stalin successfully replaced all discussion involving arguments and evidence with the question of motive. “Ukrainians don’t want to be Russian? Well, they would say that – they’re Neo-Nazis,” says the modern-day Stalinist, Putin.

If our government had encouraged dissenting voices on how we managed Covid when it inevitably arrived, we might not have had the shambles of Auckland lockdowns, confiscated RATs, and the muddle of moving dates for open borders.

Stifling debate leads to bad solutions. Or at least you’ve got no way of knowing if they’re good or bad. Unity is too often valued over dissent.

Of course, no one wants endless fighting. Some issues, once aired, are resolved. Move on. We debated homosexual law reform, then agreed to change the law. End of story. Whether humans are warming the climate is not a debate we need to have. We are. It’s a fact.

But we do need debate on how best to deal with climate change. Yet, good luck having that exchange of ideas on Twitter.

So, happy birthday to you, New Zealand Initiative. Let’s continue to be intolerant of intolerance, and disagree without denouncing.

After all, we’re just trying to have a reasonable conversation.

Which reminds me of a story I heard. A woman looking for wisdom delves into the ancient books, and finds two respected elders at loggerheads, with opposing views. “Dear God, who is right?” she asks. “Both of them,” replies God. “But they can’t both be right?”

“Ahh,” says God. “Actually, all three of you are right.”

Josie Pagani is a Stuff columnist, who has worked in politics, aid and development.

Ten years of Initiative
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Who would start a serious think tank on April Fools’ Day? Presumably someone with a good sense of humour.

Thus, the Initiative was established ten years ago today.

Perhaps the real reason for starting on 1 April had more to do with the beginning of the Financial Year. Since businesspeople were involved, that timing would make sense.

But whoever was responsible for that humorous start had a point. Both politics and think tanks benefit from a sense of humour, a healthy degree of irreverence, and a fair amount of self-deprecation.

Don’t get me wrong: The issues we are dealing with are no laughing matters. Some of them, such as the persistent inequities in our education system, are deeply depressing.

Nevertheless, sanctimonious talk does not help anyone. Nor does preaching to the converted or disguising one’s own doubts.

Much of our politics would be better if we accepted that even our friends can sometimes be wrong – and that our usual opponents may occasionally have good ideas. Both sides usually want to achieve similar things, just by different means.

And so, over the years, we have tried to reach out as much as we could. To disagree gently with those on our side when they deserved it. To find agreements with those opposite when they were right. And to do both in a good-humoured, friendly, and engaging way.

In the same spirit, we believe in clear and simple language. It is of no use to talk about policies to benefit everyone when hardly anyone understands them.

Worse still, thoughts will also become unclear when words are not clear.

As George Orwell said about the English language, it “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

And so, after a decade at The New Zealand Initiative, I hope we have been clear without being boring. That we tried to make ourselves understood at least as much as we tried to understand others. That we write and speak in a language that connects thoughts and people.

Our goal is to add ideas, colour, and nuance to New Zealand’s debates in our often-polarised world.

And hopefully, the occasional dose of good humour, too. Not just on April Fools’ Day.

From all of us, thank you for your support over the past decade.

Dr Oliver Hartwich has been the Initiative’s Executive Director since 2012.

On The Record

Initiative Activities:   
All Things Considered
  • Infographic of the week: From Amazon to Zoom: What happens in an internet minute in 2021?
  • Flashback: Radio New Zealand on a new think tank, ten years ago
  • Flashback: Oliver Hartwich’s “genuine talent for upsetting people”
  • Why online learning should not be the ‘new normal’ in post-COVID education
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