OPINION LEADERS Advancing New Zealand

Some say you can sum up the difference between Australia and New Zealand by listening to the respective national anthems. Over there they’re advancing Australia fair, while here we want God to defend New Zealand. We all know the urban legends of the brash Aussie and the understated Kiwi, and how we are somehow just that bit superior (although we’re too nice to say so).
Well here are few interesting points. Firstly, in my experience, most Aussies actually genuinely like Kiwis, probably for the simple reason that there are so many of us over there – every large Australian company seems to have sizeable Kiwi mafia and every Aussie seems to have at least few mates from the shaky isles.
Secondly, I don’t think our diaspora should surprise anyone when you consider the drivers. Australia’s rate of growth has outstripped ours, and the economy of Sydney is now bigger than the economy of New Zealand. The simple fact is for many skilled New Zealanders opportunities feel bigger and better there. But Aussie comradeship isn’t an invitation to coat-tail: we have to make our own way, which is as it should be.
The comradeship and size create both opportunities and threats for us.
One big opportunity is to leverage the growth and dynamism of our Australian neighbour, taking advantage of that large market for our goods and services.
That requires us to be more nimble than Australia. There’s no good reason why we can’t – we aren’t burdened with federalism; we are smaller and our business leaders and senior managers are generally less specialised, which could cause issues of course, but also tends to mean quicker, less siloed decision making. The gap between boards, shareholders and managers will often be narrower in New Zealand companies, which should lead to an easier road to effective governance, reporting and support for business decisions.
One particular threat is the branch office syndrome – large New Zealand companies moving their head office to Australia. It’s likely this trend will continue, given technology and the nature of corporate ownership in New Zealand. It needn’t be bad thing, so long as good career paths remain and sufficient skills and talents are retained here, and as long as we grow our small Kiwi businesses into large ones to take the place of those that go. The big threat is that we simply become an Australian branch office and nothing else.
As an expat Kiwi coming back it worries me to say that I see more of the threats than the opportunities at present. It seems as if there is very little immigration back to New Zealand from Australia by our skilled citizens. few come back but they’re daffodils, not Spring.
That wouldn’t matter so much if I could see evidence of us being nimble (or, to be blunt, the Government allowing us to be nimble). But that’s what I don’t see. In the key area of employment law, for example, the difference between Australia and New Zealand is marked. Here in New Zealand we have law that says there’s an inherent inequality of power between employers and employees and that the job of the law should be to correct that balance. Pardon? This is positively Dickensian. The days of exploiting workers in the way the law suggests are decades gone. The reality is that any employer who tries to exploit workforce will rapidly find them leaving to join competitor. That’s why so many companies are trying to become ’employers of choice’ these days – doesn’t sound exploitative to me.
New Zealand is experiencing great growth at the moment and some might say the Employment Relations Act has been factor in this success. Actually, we’re getting growth despite our labour laws. When the cycle turns, as it must, we will find that it is laws like this that will stop us being nimble to access new markets and new investment.
And how are our neighbours across the Tasman going? The Howard Coalition is likely to give business, and particularly small business, the capacity to be more nimble as result of raft of labour law changes in the next year or two.
We should be pursuing policies that will enable us to be more, not less nimble, than our Ocker cousins. If that occurs then I believe passionately that we will be in great position going forward. Then we truly can advance New Zealand fair – without changing our anthem. Personally I could never get into that “girt by sea” line anyway.

• Phil O’Reilly is chief executive of Business NZ.

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