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Insights 30: 18 August 2023
Research Note: Bryce Wilkinson compares NZ's economic performance to Ireland's
Podcast: Eric Crampton and Oliver Hartwich on taking GST off fruit and vegetables
The Australian: Oliver Hartwich on learnings from the Initiative's visit to Ireland

Empower capable principals to lead reform
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
In 1989, the Lange government implemented the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. The old Department of Education was replaced by a new agency, the – initially – much leaner Ministry of Education. Schools became self-governing. 

The goals of Tomorrow’s Schools have not been achieved. Since 1989, the performance of New Zealand’s school system has deteriorated. The literacy, numeracy and disciplinary knowledge of our young people has undergone a slow but inexorable decline. Our educational inequality is amongst the worst in the OECD.  

Arguably, the decline during the Tomorrow’s Schools era has occurred because the opportunities they afforded have not been sufficiently exploited. Certainly, Ministry interference with school autonomy hasn’t helped. Forcing schools to accept Modern Learning Environments is a case in point.  

In any event, a return to centralisation is not the answer. It would be foolish to think that further empowering the Ministry can solve our educational problems.  

The Ministry has grown to dwarf the Department it replaced. Yet, just about everything it does makes things worse. From literacy and numeracy, to curriculum, to teacher education, the Ministry has spectacularly failed to provide competent stewardship of education. A reform-minded Minister can spend years trying to harness the Ministry and get nowhere. 

Instead, to make a real difference, Ministers should focus on creating conditions in which capable principals can take full advantage of the flexible Tomorrow’s Schools environment. Instead of looking to the Ministry to enact reform, they should concentrate on getting them out of the way. 

Principals understand our educational problems better than anyone. Some of them have great ideas for improvement. They should be encouraged to act on them. 

Already there are principals who, with the support of their Boards, are collaborating to design new teacher education programmes based on evidence rather than ideology. Others are leading the development of knowledge-rich curricula. Still others are opting out of the new Level 1 NCEA, scheduled for implementation in 2024, and leading the design of local qualifications. 

These innovations offer real opportunities for reform. Not all of them will be successful, but some will. A Minister who wants real reform should encourage innovation with political and financial support. That support should come with requirements and resources to measure the effects of each initiative. The successful ones should be publicised and promoted. 

The Ministry will never lead meaningful reform. A better approach would be to empower capable principals to go around them.

Why English is the lingua franca
Dr James Kierstead | Research Fellow |
Why does so much of the world speak English?

As someone who was born in Canada, educated in the UK and US, and has now been living in New Zealand for more than a decade, the question has always fascinated me. It’s also the question that the New Zealand historian James Belich sought to answer in his classic Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World, which I’ve just finished reading.  

For Belich, the global sway of English isn’t simply a result of the technological superiority that saw Europeans take over vast swathes of the world in the period between Columbus’ journeys and the First World War. It was also the result of a distinctive path of development that took off in the 19th century and was, if not exclusively Anglophone, at least ‘Anglo-prone.’  

First, a ‘preindustrial revolution’ in communications technology (sailing ships and canals, but also literacy and postal services) helped Anglophone ‘oldlands’ (Britain and the original, thirteen-state US) set up distant ‘newlands,’ with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand serving as Britain’s ‘wild Wests.’ 

Next came the settlers, in a ‘settler revolution’ marked as much as anything else by a change in attitudes to migration. A whole ‘booster’ literature flowed back to the oldlands, transforming emigration from ‘an act of desperation’ into a golden opportunity. Some 36 million oldlanders answered the call. 

Money, information, and industrial technology went with them, fuelling ‘explosive colonisation’ in the newlands. Cities like Chicago and ‘marvellous Melbourne’ boomed, then busted. 

But the oldlands could help. In a process Belich calls ‘recolonization,’ busted newlands re-attached themselves to their oldlands through new transportation technologies. New Zealand began its long career as a supplier of frozen mutton and refrigerated dairy to Britain. 
By the First World War, the Dominions were also supplying manpower, an export of lives that is marked by memorials from northern Canada to Southland.  

In the decades since the Second World War, Canada and Australia have increasingly forged their own paths. New Zealand, for its part, was forced to seek other trading partners after Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. 

Our world today is very different from Winston Churchill’s, let alone James Cook’s, and in most ways for the better. At the same time, the nations that once formed Britain’s far-flung ‘Wests’ retain certain commonalities. For anyone who wants to understand the source of these commonalities, Belich’s book is a must. 

Labour’s recipe for GST-free fruit and vegetables
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
  • 1 cup contradiction (finely chopped)
  • 500 grams of voter polling (preferably gullible)
  • 2 tablespoons of economic nonsense (no substitutes)
  • A generous pinch of legal complexity
  • A dash of ambiguity (to taste)
  • A sprinkling of international tax quirks
  • A heaped spoonful of political expediency

1. Start with the contradictions: Begin by asserting that the policy will help low-income families. Avoid noting that the wealthy will nevertheless save the most money, or acknowledging that the policy might not lead to increased consumption of fruit and vegetables. Stir until thoroughly confused.

2. Add voter polling: Next, add in voter polling, but only the kind that confirms this is a good idea. If using other opinions, be sure to disregard them. Blend until smooth.

3. Fold in economic nonsense: Slowly incorporate economic nonsense by adding the idea that removing GST from fruit and vegetables will lower their price by exactly GST component. Do not acknowledge other market forces. Ignore economic advice. Throw in an extra $240m in unanticipated costs. Whisk until well combined.

4. Sprinkle with ambiguity: Generously sprinkle with ambiguity. Be vague about how to define ‘fresh vegetables.’ Should a potato crisp qualify? Or a washed carrot? Continue to leave unclear until the policy looks opaque.

5. Garnish with legal complexity: Complement with legal complexity by consulting lawyers on how to classify mixed food items. Spend significant time and money ensuring that a salad qualifies but a salad sandwich does not.

6. Stir in international tax quirks: Look to the culinary masters in the UK, who spent decades debating whether a certain biscuit was in fact a teacake. Then, take inspiration from Australia, where courts decided that an oven-baked Italian flatbread was a cracker for tax purposes. Blend these examples into the policy, until the delicious confusion and inefficiency are perfectly melded.

7. Season with political expediency: Finally, season with a heaped spoonful of political expediency, ensuring that the policy aligns with short-term political gains rather than long-term economic sense. Switch off your morals and conscience should you have any. Simmer until re-election.

Serve this dish to a nation expecting a thoughtful and effective approach to reducing living costs. Enjoy the unedifying spectacle of complications, contradictions, and international tax mishaps. Warning: may cause nausea in anyone expecting sound economic policy.

Pairs well with a glass of scepticism and is best enjoyed with a hearty serving of legal textbooks. Bon appétit, New Zealand!

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