Watch out we don’t lose our country

09 Oct 2020 Watch out we don’t lose our country image

There are two essential requirements for New Zealand’s recovery that are slipping away.  Commentators and economists are talking about turning to robotics and artificial intelligence, as if they are a tap that can simply be turned on.  Then there are comments about redeploying New Zealanders, and how this is once again something that can happen overnight as if by magic. 

Pre-Covid, robotics, artificial intelligence and unemployed New Zealanders were all available options.  How come these options were not taken up back then?  And what makes it possible to take these options up now?

At the moment, we face the loss of our productive capability as well as our productive land.  Despite what commentators and economists are saying, the only way that New Zealand is going to recover is through the backbone of our country, the primary sector.  Today and tomorrow, tourism, international education and stunning new technology are not going to be our savours. 

In the build up to the General Election, I’ve been monitoring what is being proposed and then what the economists and commentators have said.  There is a gradual realisation that we have are in deep financial trouble and a growing - albeit slowly - realisation that we are going to need to go back to our farmlands for our immediate future. 

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is down 13.4% for the first six months of 2020, nearly twice the GDP fall of Australia.  $13.9 billion has been spent by the Government on wage subsidies, supporting just under 200,000 jobs and we are going to need to pay that back.  The only ray of sunshine has been the increase in export returns from the primary sector: dairy up 4.1% and fruit up 10.1%.  This makes my point that our recovery will be led by the primary sector.

The challenges and risks we face are the loss of our productive land and productive capability.  As a nation, we need to move our focus onto these two issues as fast as we can.  I recently drove through the Waikato on the western side of the Waikato river, through Pukekohe and North of Auckland along the East Coast.  The one remarkable feature was the explosion of both lifestyle blocks and urban housing, taking away productive land. 

It would seem that little planning is going into protecting our productive land and the environment from urban expansion.  Just under 6,000 new lifestyle blocks are created a year.  Houses do not generate the overseas income we need, and houses are major polluters of our environment. 

However, full credit to the current Government that under the Resource Management Act, protection for our productive land is well-advanced.  This is urgently required before we lose our future.

Productive capability needs to be protected as we move into recovery.  It is not as simple as taking 200,000 people and giving them completely new careers.  This will take time.  Robotics and artificial intelligence will also take time, and are counter-productive to redeploying 200,000 people. 

The problem we face with redeploying 200,000 people is that they need to get primary sector jobs, not necessarily on the land but in the supply chain.  This requires new skills and adaptability.  Flexibility is required by the workers, employers and government programmes to help people move out of cities, train and learn to love working outdoors. 

To protect our productive capability, both industry and government need to work in close partnership, to make sure we can produce healthy food while transitioning New Zealanders into new careers. 

The situation requires the primary sector to be able to access offshore labour, this year and next, as the transition starts.  Industry is working with government to protect and enhance our productive capability.  Careful balancing is needed as over the coming months, we move into harvest. 

Net migration from April to July last year was 14,200 but for the same period this year, it was only 800.  Offshore labour is therefore not a risk.  Our challenge is how to access productive capability, while we re-train and re-locate 200,000 New Zealanders.

So, as you go to the polls to vote, think about our country and what is needed for economic survival: productive land and productive capability, and industry and government partnerships for the future. 

If we don’t protect our land and capability, we will lose our country.

Mike Chapman, Chief Executive