David Shearer: stargazing at the Transit of Venus

by Toby Manhire / 07 June, 2012
Interview: the Labour leader on science, innovation, and the future of New Zealand.

Immediately after the hangi out at Tolaga Bay Area School yesterday, I grabbed David Shearer, leader of the Labour party, for a quick chat about the transit of Venus celebrations, the accompanying forum, and how the ideas under discussion here fit with his thinking.

What have you made of the event so far?

It’s a mix of history and culture and science – and the future, in a way. It’s quite a unique blend, and I hope that the conference brings out some really good ideas about where New Zealand goes in the future.

I think Sir Paul Callaghan [who conceived the transit forum] would be really happy with where it’s got to today. Even down to the point where, while it’s cloudy now – here we are in the early afternoon – but it was brilliantly fine when the transit of Venus was [beginning].

In terms of the ideas encapsulated in this event and the forum – how is that informing your thinking at the moment?

Paul Callaghan had a huge impact on me. I read From Wool to Weta, and then got in contact with him and said I’d like to have a chat with him. And it was an interesting conversation. We talked about where we were going to meet, and I said, Why don’t you come up to Bellamy’s [the parliamentary restaurant] for lunch. So he did that. We met at 12 O’clock. And at ten to two it seemed like about 10 minutes later. The bells were ringing for parliament, and it had been about two hours. He’d just been talking about his ideas.

I saw him several times after that. I don’t think he’s completely right about everything, but his main thrust, the New Zealand where he wants to go, is the New Zealand I would like to help lead us to ...

My sense is that we’ve always seen as New Zealanders that it’s always been a trade-off with the environment. And it’s actually not: actually the environment is our future, and innovation around the environment is our future. It’s not simply the idea that you grow at the expense of the environment – you grow with the environment, and to the benefit of the environment.

The more that we can do that in New Zealand, the more advantage I think we swing overseas, where we want to sell our goods.

That sounds close to a Russel Norman [Green leader] position.

Look, they accused me the other day, when I was talking about “clean, green and clever” – which is a phrase I’ve been using for more than two years – they said that was their idea. I said, no it wasn’t, it came from Ray Avery, who gave me that phrase. And my feeling is that it’s where New Zealand needs to go.

I guess it doesn’t mean we disagree with the Greens, but I think that’s the area where New Zealand needs to be. I mean, we’re starting to max out on what we can do with our environment. And we’ve always had that advantage. And to some degree it’s a hindrance, because if you look at other countries that have moved on, like-sized countries, in terms of their population, Singapore, Israel, Denmark, Finland – perhaps with the exception of Finland – they haven’t had the same type of physical benefits that we have. So we’ve always focussed on those physical benefits and not focussed on our brains and creativity, whereas they had to. And I think it’s time that we forced ourselves to move in that direction, and not just rely on our very benign and helpful environment.

In science and tech terms, I think there was about $300 million in the budget. Is that going in the right direction?

Our feeling has always been that, for example, in trying to promote research and development in the private sector is the biggest issue, and I don’t see enough incentive going into that area. We had a research and development tax credit, implemented in 2008, and that was taken away when National got in. Took them a couple of years to get around to replacing it, and they came back with vouchers, which companies applied for, and they got money according to government department grants.

I think that’s a very inefficient, and very bureaucratic, way of rewarding innovation. What you should be able to do is to say to companies that are innovative: Get out and do it. We’ll get in behind you. You take the risks. We’ll meet some of those risks and we’ll give you a tax credit. But it’s up to you. We don’t know what’s going to work. I wouldn’t trust myself and I wouldn’t trust a government department to say what’s going to be the next Google or the next whatever – so why don’t you go out there and do it ...

In 2011, they cut $14 million out of science. I don’t want to sound like a politician, and I am sounding like a politician, but I don’t think that they’re willing to make the step change that I think is needed in New Zealand, it’s too much tinkering round the edges.

So if you want a step change, is the science and tech stuff going to be central to your message?

I think it’s about science and it’s about innovation, and it’s also about design. And that for me is where New Zealand’s future lies.

And that relates, obviously, to the farming sector as well, but we just haven’t given the other part of our economy enough – in terms of manufacturing and design. And a lot of it’s not even tangible. Designing software, for example. But those are the jobs that I think, that ...

Septuagenarian chap approaches: “Having shaken the hand of the prime minister, I should shake the hand of the leader of the opposition. All the best.” (etc)

In making that argument, presumably you must be conscious of the risk of alienating the farming sector, the heartland?

Every time I write or speak on this, somebody writes to me and says, What have you got against farming? And the answer is, Well, nothing. It’s not an “or”; it’s an “and”. You add this to farming.

If we want to create high-paying, high-skilled, fascinating jobs, then we have to be looking in this area. We can’t be just simply trying to put more dairy cows on land. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, there is if it’s polluting. But I don’t agree with caps and things like that on dairy. You do what you can do. But it has to be a different future, I think.

But isn’t that the nub of the political problem, that you feel you have to say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”?

All I’m saying is there’s an environmental limit that you hit. I don’t care about cows going on farms as long as the environment is protected. I guess that’s the issue for me. But the issue really is that very soon we will have countries around the world that will be competing with us on price, so our goods have to be up the value chains in terms of ethics, in terms of sustainability, environmental cost. Those are the things that people will pay a premium for.

Because we’re not going to be able to compete with the Chiles and the Brazils and the Chinas, who in 10, 15 years’ time will have similar ability to produce protein as us, except it won’t be done in quite the same way. So we have to start thinking ahead.

Full coverage of the transit of Venus, and the Transit of Venus Forum, here.
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