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Dr Michael Cullen Speech To NZBSR 2000 Conference

Speech Notes
27 AUGUST 2000



Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a very great pleasure to be here on behalf of Helen Clark to open your conference on "Leading the Way: Achieving Peak Performance Through Implementing Socially Responsible Business".

Let me begin by saying that the government is strongly supportive of what this organisation is trying to achieve and is deeply interested in the outcome of your deliberations at this conference. You meet at a crucial time for the future of business and the business-government relationship.

I want to see that relationship put on a sound and secure footing of mutual respect and common purpose. It has sometimes been said that the great historic battle between state socialism and capitalism has been decisively resolved in favour of the latter.

That is a little crude and simplistic. In countries like New Zealand that never was the battle despite various attempts to rewrite history. And as a historian I have to point out that there are few final victories ever.

But on a global scale it is clear that the last twenty years have seen a strong wave of success for liberal, open, democratic societies and economies against the forces of control, closure and dictatorship.

What is crucial now is for those of us who have been the victors in this – of which I regard myself as being a very insignificant part – recognise the need for balance and sanity within the new paradigms which have emerged.

In particular, it is crucial that old battles are not continually refought – particularly as mock wars against shadow enemies. It is simply cartoon thinking to characterise, for example, regulation of the telecommunications market to ensure maximum effective competition between private sector players as either anti-business or a lurch towards state socialism or control. I could make similar remarks about the industrial relations laws, takeover codes or the promotion of business development.

Sadly, some in New Zealand still seem to want to fight these past battles. This leads to unintelligent debate in which almost any move by the government is labelled as anti-business. This even includes direct funding to assist business!

But enough of the past, I believe the present government and this organisation have an enormous amount in common. We both want to see a vital, dynamic, growing economy. We both recognise the primary role of the private sector in generating growth and employment. We both want to see that dynamic economy built upon a base of full social participation and environmental responsibility.

We both recognise that this cannot be done by government alone, or business alone. And, most importantly, I suspect we share the view that business is not just about business alone.

This is the real crux of the debate about the role of business in a modern civilised society. If the great majority of us have come to the shared view that a basically open, private enterprise economy is the best means to wealth creation and the best underpinning for a liberal society then the role of business becomes a central issue in the public debate about the very nature of society.

There are some who argue that the role of business, or more precisely, businesses, should simply be to maximise profits and shareholder value. To some extent it can be argued that the Companies Act provides a legal foundation for that view.

In this view, by simply maximising profit and shareholder value, a business makes its only worthwhile contribution to the general good.
The famous invisible hand, the magician of neo-classicism, then does its job to ensure that optimised outcomes then ensue.

There is a deeply and profoundly unsatisfying feeling about this approach. It turns us into very crude economic instruments rather than rounded and complete human beings. In a strange way, it also turns the process of work into a one dimensional activity of making a living.

The reality, of course, is that many of us find some of our greatest fulfilment in work. It is often where we make our best friends, even some of us our spouses. It is, at its best, a key aspect of how we express our common humanity and common purpose

But we do not have to rely upon longstanding philosophies based around concepts of service, duty, loyalty and cooperation to justify a broader approach. The evidence is now clear that, at least taken over the long run, businesses that adopt a broader perspective, that accept broader responsibilities, that centre themselves on a wider understanding of the nature and needs of human beings do better.
In that respect it is illuminating to contemplate how few of the high-flying advance guard of narrowly interpreted capitalism have survived from the 1980s to the present day.

So I wish you well. I want to see more businesses in New Zealand dedicated to advancing the interests of all who work in them, businesses that recognise social and environmental concerns beyond the office door or factory gate; businesses, in other words, who look and feel and act like New Zealand corporate citizens. I wish you well.

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