A new New Zealand? Echoes of Esko Aho

April 10, 2012

 “We decided to conclude the matter with an amusing tale that when I served as Finance Minister in Finland, many people wanted the New Zealand model. This time round, people in New Zealand looked to the Finnish model. Perhaps together they might form a perfect model,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto

You can’t knock down stand up comedian and Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee. He looked beaten at the Finnish line a fortnight ago, but in the wake of the just released United Nation’s World Happiness Survey, in which Finland was ranked number two in the world behind Denmark, he bounced back last week by throwing another custard pie at himself:“Poor old Finns, can’t be first again,” overlooking the fact that, for what it was worth, New Zealand took out the eighth spot. The irrepressible impresario suggested that the Finns were so happy because they were still laughing at his Finnish jokes. 

Jokes? All hell broke loose in Helsinki after his throwaway unfunny Finnish comments two weeks ago. A total of about one million residents live in the Greater Helsinki area, which includes Espoo, and that’s what Gerry landed himself in after his comments in Parliament in response to a speech by Labour Leader David Shearer: “…It’s unbelievable isn’t it. That you’d … make a speech saying I want New Zealand to be like Finland which has worse unemployment than us, can hardly feed the people who live there, has a terrible homicide rate, hardly educates their people and has no respect for women.”

According to the OECD Better Life Index, Finland’s murder rate is indeed nearly twice that of New Zealand. It also has worse unemployment and health provision. But on economic indicators such as income and life balance, Finland is ahead of New Zealand. Its GDP is also rising faster than ours and its education is rated tops.

Luckily the PM has more finesse than his Minister of Demolition and knows from the musical Finns down under how to quieten incipient storms in teacups: Everywhere you go you always take the weather with you”*. Sunny John Key mollified his new Seoul mate, the recently inaugurated Finnish President Sauli Niinisto at the Nuclear Security Summit and defended Brownlee’s sense of humour saying that he was known for his rollicking speeches in Parliament. Or should that have been bollocking?

Gerry Built
His Minister hadn’t gone down as a Nordic Mr Pickwick, though he has the impressive corporeal assets. In vain he had protested that he wasn’t anti-Finland, waving as proof his Nokia cellphone (definitely an old dunger in the mobile stakes)and pointing out that he carried “a little bit of Finland” with him all the time. Finnish commentators picked up more on his girth than his mirth. As John Key said Gerry is a big unit; he carries a rather larger bit of Godzone and is an all round advertisement for 100% pure New Zealand dairy products.

Finnish TV host Tuomas Enbuske, no svelte elf himself, made play of this in his equally unfunny item Gerry Brownlee: Greetings from Finland.* The erstwhile merely Angry Birds* were now apoplectic: this was no porcine single egg pinching: a cartoon porker had poached the whole carton.

Finnishing School
While Brownlees’s expansive cv obviously doesn’t include Finnishing School David Shearer is obviously a keen distance learning student. He was the one who a fortnight ago had began single handedly to play Finlandia.* The new Labour leader’s long awaited positioning speech  called for New Zealand to follow in Finland’s footsteps. The two countries are of the same size with similar problems. About 5.4 million people live in Finland compared with New Zealand’s 4.4 million-not counting the Kiwi diaspora.

At the Cullen Breakfast Club (no round tables here) Shearer said the Finns had managed to transform their small country into a wealthy knowledge economy “through innovation and talent “. Catching up with Australia is obviously old hat; catching up with Finland is the thing now.

The question is not why were so many Finns so thin skinned-in fact very Kiwi-like-in reacting furiously to Brownlee’s for-domestic-consumption-only jibes,  but why our Government has been so touchy and tetchy about Shearer’s Finnish analogy. The answer is that it raises big questions raised about the Government’s economic and social vision and strategy, beyond partial asset sales. The public consciousness is still stuck on the underwhelming  Jobs Summit thinking of three years ago. Bike trails are fine but they are also rather pedestrian and not the main highway to the future. They don’t cut it as a compelling vision of a bravish new world. This is where Shearer sees his opportunity.

Aho Ahoy
The new Labour leader is keen to echo Esko Aho, the largely untested, former Finnish Prime Minister who came into office in 1991. Finland was a relative latecomer to industrialisation, remaining a largely agrarian country until the 1950s. Thereafter, economic development was rapid. Finland built an extensive welfare state and navigated a middle way economically and politically but by the early nineties needed a new prescription, which Aho administered.

Shearer: Aho’s message to the Finnish people was blunt and honest: They had big problems. No-one else was going to fix them. And most importantly: only their brains and talent were going to take them forward. Collectively, the people of Finland took that message on board. They moved forward. They transformed their economy through through innovation and talent. They put at the centre of everything they did great teachers and schools and great science, research and development.”

As his shift-to-the-right positioning statement for the 2014 General Election he added, with a side swipe at our present PM: “Aho made bold decisions.He was, I need to say, voted out at the next election. He thought it was more important to make a difference than to get re-elected.”

Transformation Through Education
Shearer wants to focus on education to achieve this Finnish transformation by focusing on teachers and holding failing schools to account. Rather than hardly educating its people, as in Browlee’s dismissive missile, Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. So of course has New Zealand, only a few points behind it. In 2009 OECD figures ranked Finnish students at 3rd highest in reading, 6th in mathematics and 2nd in science. New Zealand students ranked 7th, 13th and 7th, respectively.

The trouble is that we have a very large tail of underachievers and that we export so many of the best brains we produce, which hardly helps the quality of the domestic talent pool.

The main problem with our education system seems to be our problem with child poverty manifesting itself through the education system in a cycle of socio/ economic/ learning deprivation. Finland has state supplied child care up to the age of seven, not “pre school education”, and their children start school two years later than here. It has the second lowest rate of child poverty in the OECD (New Zealand is 22nd out of 34).

Education is free and living expenses are to a large extent financed by the government through student benefits. More than 30% of tertiary graduates are in science-related fields including forest improvement, environmental sciences, neural networks, low-temperature physics, brain research, biotechnology, genetic technology and communications. Finland had a long tradition of adult education and by the 1980s nearly one million Finns were enrolled, 40% for professional reasons

Beyond Sacred Cows
Following in Finland’s footsteps is all very well, but recent economic snowstorms have rather obscured the trail. Former vaunted economicons like Nokia  look less shiny in the new telecommunications Jobs market. Nevertheless Nokia, famously once involved in forest products,  may not be today the poster child it once was, but it still generates three times the annual revenue of Fonterra.

He didn’t mention him by name in his speech, but Shearer picked up on the contribution made to economic debate by the late Sir Paul Callaghan.
But as good as New Zealand is at it, there’s a ceiling to how much butter and beef and meat and milk you can make off New Zealand grass. You hit the limit a long time before you get to be as prosperous as Australia.”

Finnish comedians may have used old Aussie sheep jokes in their onslaught on Brownlee but it should now be obvious that it’s now cows that are the bêtes noires in New Zealand. The grass on the other side of the fence is not necessarily greener and we need to have complementary knowledge intensive strategies to boost export earnings.

You can debate diversification until the cows come home but home grown exemplars are food for thought. Shearer gave several local examples of “high value technologies developed right here by smart New Zealanders.” However, he made no mention of the Government’s offshore oil and minerals plans-to make the most of the fourth biggest expanse of territorial waters in the world. Oil has just been discovered off the coast of Ireland-just in time to save that once much vaunted smaller economy. Where does new Labour stand on a possible ocean mining bonanza? Despite mining initiatives set in train by the last Labour Government Shearer was silent on the mineral minefield.

Vision and Focus
He finished his speech thus:
“If ideas help to build a new New Zealand, we like them. If they don’t, then out they go….“This new New Zealand will be the kind of place the rest of world would like to live.
It will be clean,
it will be green,
it will be clever …
and it will be a place that’s good for lambs.”

With the clean and the green are under threat from the sacred cows “clever” is the key here.The bit about the lambs should have got the chop.

We can and should learn things from other countries-we haven’t the time to make all our own mistakes-but we need to do things our way, without the necessity for neo colonial cringe. Picking up on innovative examples in our own country and amplifying them is the way to go. The body politic is less likely to reject home grown solutions than those transplanted out of context from elsewhere.

It’s not just about vision, it’s about focus. As the Finn Brothers sang:
“…You look into the eyes of the world
Hoping to catch your reflection again
Missing all the real life action.”
                   Eyes Of The World

 *Blinks
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/6644473/Finns-bite-back-over-Brownlee-comments  
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/6701037/Is-happiness-a-Brownlee-joke-away 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XojVmivqDrA  Finlandia   Sibelius    Vid
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYXiGhM-4nkDavid Shearer’s speech A new New Zealand Vid
http://labour.org.nz/newnz  Transcript of David Shearer’s speech to the Cullen Breakfast Club
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zl6CHfjeORo&feature=related    Angry Birds Movie Trailer  Vid
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7UGuyCLGCE&feature=fvst  Finn Brothers – “Weather With You” Vid
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnDnFUBWQsQ   Gerry Brownlee: Greetings from Finland Vid

#Lyall Lukey 10 April 2012
http://www.lukey.co.nz/  http://www.smartnet.co.nz
https://bluggerme.wordpress.com  My other less serious blog

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