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Please don't mention Trump or our economic success

Finance Minister Steven Joyce, seen here at an ICT Sector Report launch, batted away criticism of GDP as a measure of economic performance in a recent TV interview. Photo / Getty Images

It's election year — watch out for dog-whistles and half-truths.

Godwin’s Law asserts that if a discussion goes on long enough someone will eventually compare a policy or person to Adolf Hitler. It has since morphed into the notion that the first person to mention Hitler immediately loses the debate.

In a much milder manifestation of the phenomenon, Donald Trump is becoming an example for many people of everything that is reprehensible in contemporary politics, and invoking his name is shorthand for aggressive racism. Judith Collins has already gone there. Following Andrew Little’s promise to slash immigrant numbers by “tens of thousands”, Collins told Jacinda Ardern on The AM Show: “It reminded me of a politician from the US. I thought it was a real ‘build a wall’ type of thing.”

Ardern looked about as derisive as she can given her naturally sunny disposition, but it was obvious that by bringing Trump into the frame Collins had lost the argument — especially since Ardern made it clear Labour only wanted a “breather” in immigration until Auckland’s infrastructure had caught up with its bloated population, which seems like an eminently reasonable position. “I think Auckland understands utterly what I’m talking about,” she said.

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National has pledged to keep the migrant floodgates open so expect to hear Trump invoked a lot more on the campaign trail as a desperate counter to Labour’s position on immigration — in the same way that any attempt by opposition parties to point out how many overseas Asians have been buying houses in Auckland has reliably been drowned out by cries from National of xenophobia or racism.

Other themes are emerging as the campaign gets under way. One that Steven Joyce slipped into an interview with Lisa Owen on The Nation in late April is that we’re doing a lot better economically than our international peers. “I think New Zealand is performing well,” our finance minister said. “We’ve performed better than most of the other countries in the OECD over the last few years.”

This is so far-fetched Owen could have been excused for slapping her thigh and laughing. The sad fact is that our per capita GDP is below the OECD average and our productivity is dismal. We work some of the longest hours in the OECD for a less-than-average income.

Our per capita income is well behind that of Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway and other small developed nations with similar populations we might like to compare ourselves to — including that Asian powerhouse, Singapore. We’re way behind another small island, Iceland, too.

Norway, with a population of 4.5 million, has a per capita GDP almost 70 per cent higher than ours. Yes, I know it has oil but even without that income it would be far richer than us.

It’s true that our annual increase in GDP is running at over three per cent but that’s mostly due to the huge influx of immigrants being funnelled into the country, at a higher rate than nearly every other member of the OECD. And it is per capita GDP, not GDP overall, that determines our individual wealth.

When Owen pointed out our per capita GDP was around one per cent, Joyce came up with the lame excuse John Key always trotted out: “Well, GDP per capita is one measure, with the greatest respect… That number goes up and down over time.”

This is an extraordinarily stupid response from a finance minister — our per capita GDP and productivity figures are stagnating, and have been falling relative to other economies for years.

Joyce, however, is not alone in pushing the line about our economic exceptionalism. He has cheerleaders in the media who are happy to repeat the same absurdities with a straight face.

PR maven and former president of the National Party Michelle Boag is a chief culprit. In public discussions she often manages to slip in the statement that “the New Zealand economy is doing really well.”

She gave this notion a good airing last December when she found herself on TVNZ’s Q&A panel discussing Labour’s landslide win in Roskill the night before, and John Key’s untrustworthiness. She obviously didn’t like the tone of the conversation, and bristled when host Greg Boyed effectively suggested Key was the patron saint of lost causes, citing the doomed TPP, the flag referendum and his backing for Helen Clark’s failed bid to lead the UN.

Clearly exasperated, Boag came to the Prime Minister’s defence with a touching rebuttal that centred on why New Zealanders loved Key and wanted to take selfies with him. “Our economic story is better than everywhere else in the world. Everyone thinks we’re amazing. You talk to anyone overseas… you talk to Australians… they would love to have our Prime Minister. The fact is he has put New Zealand back at the top of the pile, economically, at a time when the challenges could not be greater, and people like him for that.”

Our economic story is better than everywhere else in the world? Say what? If Boag — and Joyce — really believe this they obviously need to get out a lot more. And the fact that we’re not really at the top of any economic pile after eight years of National’s management could quite possibly be the reason Key himself got out ahead of time. Don’t forget he promised in 2008 to close the wages gap with Australia but that lofty aim was not only quietly dropped, it has been completely subverted by the government’s policy of importing cheap labour as a means of suppressing wages.

Australia has a per capita GDP nearly thirty per cent higher than ours. Yes, they have a whopping budget deficit and we have a surplus but that is mainly because so much that is critical to the functioning of our society has been underfunded for years — including health, education, sewerage, and other vital infrastructure such as roads.

And as economist Michael Reddell has documented at Croaking Cassandra, New Zealand’s real GDP per hour worked has been static since 2011 while Australia’s labour productivity has grown by over 5 per cent.

The Australians also have massive savings through their superannuation scheme and own the bulk of our banking system. When we do better as a nation, Australia collects the cream.

Roughly 15 per cent of our population — around 650,000 New Zealanders — live in Australia. And they prefer to live there simply because they have more opportunity, despite the fact most are treated as guest workers and denied welfare support or other financial backup available to them in New Zealand.

These sobering facts should be debated publicly but, wherever possible, National prefers to push a line about New Zealand’s economic outperformance. What’s really unfortunate is that most of our mainstream media repeat it uncritically.

Cambridge-based economist John Gascoigne, who writes occasionally for the Herald and NBR, sees things very differently.

Last year he wrote: “New Zealanders are told they have a ‘rock-star economy’ and are doing well. But they also experience low wages, almost 6 per cent unemployment, job insecurity, housing unaffordability, crippling student and national debt, homelessness, a metastasising underclass, grotesque inequality, desolate communities and so on. But we are doing well, apparently.”

Years ago, he recommended instituting an Economic Transparency Act, which would require the publication of all relevant economic and social performance indicators in easily accessible form. It would also include similar data from other small nations in the developed world. The focus would be on GDP or national income, its distribution, real per capita income and the median wage.

“This would practically eliminate all the obfuscation and confusion that exists in the public mind,” he wrote. “The slope of the trend lines would graphically reveal if we are tracking towards greater national wealth and quality of life. In other words, the country’s direction would be shown by hard, irrefutable data, not politicians’ assurances. That way, we will genuinely know if we are on the right track or locked into economic decline and societal disintegration.”

His proposal was firmly rejected. And I don’t imagine politicians will suddenly think it’s a good idea now. The last thing the government wants voters to know in an election year is how poorly we’re really doing compared to our international peers once the sugar hit of high immigration is stripped out.


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