Lowering the anti

by Listener Archive / 31 January, 2013
There are two ways of looking at corporate New Zealand.
Money - lowering the anti
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During the holidays, an old derelict wharf near my house was the site of two weddings. The wharf is much photographed and was presumably chosen as a good backdrop for wedding pictures, despite being in its final stages of disintegration.

It was originally built during the 1920s as a berth for ships transporting iron ore that was being mined and processed nearby. The collapse in prices during the Depression and reduced estimates of the resource meant the business – the NZ Steel of its day – failed and the wharf has slowly fallen apart.

You can look at the wharf in two ways: as a decaying eyesore of rusting iron that is a danger to boaties and swimmers or as a fascinating historic relic with a Stonehenge kind of beauty. Most people seem to opt for the latter.

There are also two ways of looking at corporate New Zealand, but many Kiwis tend to look at our big companies through an anti rather than pro lens, as the departing Coca-Cola boss found.

We’re anti a lot these days. It’s fashionable to oppose rather than support anything new and to dislike anything with a profit motive.

Over the past couple of generations, we’ve lost our deference to a variety of institutions. For example, when I was a child, doctors were regarded as close to god-like figures, as were religious “professionals” such as Catholic brothers and local ministers. As their relative importance in communities faded and after well-publicised transgressions, they lost some mana. Our faith in humanity is also savaged by the behaviour of people as diverse as cyclist Lance Armstrong and investment manager David Ross.

Large companies are by no means perfect. Nor are unions, political parties, national sports teams, government departments – or even the corner dairy. And we love to hate them all – except for maybe the dairies.

We’re now very proficient at instantly opining on anything – mostly online or via social media. Back when the only way most people could say what they thought was in the letters column of a newspaper or magazine, they chose their words carefully. Even today, signed letters generally have mostly considered arguments or opinions (rather than pure “vent”), whether or not you agree with them.

My particular pet hate is the anonymous online culture of vengeful commentary that has developed in recent years and which is often uninformed or inaccurate. I dislike it because it breeds a culture of negativity and divisiveness.

It’s a big contrast from half a century ago when Kiwis were famous for not venturing an opinion on anything. People were especially reluctant to talk about religion, politics or money in the days when a “mixed marriage” was more likely to be religious than racial.

That stultified and closed society was not healthy and we’ve come a long way. But this anonymous free-for-all of misinformation is no healthier. So, having had my own vent, I’ll go back to the original premise about New Zealand’s anti-corporate attitude.

It’s partly because large companies tend to be big fish in our little pond and have dominant or monopolistic market positions – bad but often unavoidable in such a small market. They’re also likely to have some foreign ownership: black mark No 2.

Because they are large, they make large profits (and no doubt work to minimise their tax) and they pay their senior people a lot of money. This is not looking good …

Even worse, they have shareholders who sometimes make money from investing. Oh dear. The collapse of corporate New Zealand post-1987 remains a deep scar. You see where I’m going?

Some corporate behaviour does not benefit New Zealand. So, of course, we should work to minimise the bad (like making all companies pay their fair share of tax), but without slamming everything companies do and while acknowledging the good bits – such as investment and providing jobs and infrastructure.

My wharf can be a danger, but it’s also a local icon. Let’s look at things a bit more holistically and with balance.

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