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Soapbox 51: Taking the future seriously

Taking the future seriously

Matthew Thomas

Soapbox 0051

At the end of last month, the Government's Information Technology Advisory Group released its The knowledge economy report.

The report makes very interesting reading, even if the constant comparisons between the development of refrigerated shipping of the 19th century and the development of the Internet in the 20th century do get on your nerves. I myself find the constant use of the phrase `knowledge economy' to be somewhat unnerving in itself, especially when it is used by people who don't really know -- or care -- what it means. But more of that in a moment.

The report itself has some disturbing things to say about New Zealand. We have, it seems, has dropped the ball in the race to create an economy which will make us better off in the next century. New Zealand has a woeful record on IT education, and one of the worst tax environments for privately funded R&D in the OECD. And because our economy is still centred on primary industries, and we're still to some extent stuck in the 1950s mindset of being the bread basket of the world, we risk turning into the basket case of the world. Or as the report itself puts it: `If New Zealanders do not seize the opportunities provided by the knowledge economy, we will survive only as an amusement park and holiday land for the citizens of more successful developed economies'.

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The simple facts are these. Concentrating on primary industries such as forestry, meat, and fruit production is not the way to generate wealth in the 21st century, because such goods can almost always be produced more cheaply elsewhere. Fiddling around with biotechnology or organic production can help these primary industries to some extent, but the real industries of the future are those involving the production, analysis, and communication of information. Computer hardware and software, Internet development, telecommunications, and other high-technology goods are the sort of industries which New Zealand must invest in, and quickly, if we are not to be left behind.

What's disappointing about the Knowledge economy report is that it doesn't have much to offer in the way of concrete suggestions for the Government on how it can bring New Zealand into this knowledge economy. There are, to be sure, some good ideas on how to improve education in the field of information technology. And there are lots of vague ideas about `removing obstacles', `championing the way ahead', `setting out a vision and a clear direction', and so on. But that's about it.

So, in this election year, the onus falls on political parties to tell us what they would do, or are doing, in Government to encourage the knowledge economy. And this is where things get worrying.

The Government claimed to have the knowledge economy problem licked last month, with its announcement of the `Bright Future: Five steps ahead' package. Indeed, IT minister Maurice Williamson said that ITAG's Knowledge economy report was `an excellent reinforcement of the steps the Government is already taking'.

But really, the Bright Future package was distinctly underwhelming: the plethora of press releases which surrounded the release of the package was, perhaps, the most impressive thing about it. Because these `five steps ahead' weren't really anything specifically to do with knowledge industries.

To see what I mean, just take a look at the five steps, as described by Bill English on the day of the launch of the programme. First, there's maintaining the Government's current economic policy. Second, there's cutting taxes. Third, there's `making the economy more competitive'. Fourthly, there's `considering' the role of Government in the knowledge economy. And fifthly, `offering more choice and flexibility to everyone who uses public services'.

When I read these five steps, I was so excited I almost fell asleep. I mean, really. Is this supposed to be the kind of visionary stuff that will lead New Zealand into the next century? Do these five steps even sound much like they show any commitment to the knowledge economy at all? Or are they just the same old National Party policy, dressed up in the emperor's new clothes?

Labour, meanwhile, is just as bad. The party's commerce spokesperson, Paul Swain, said last month that Labour will make the move of New Zealand to a knowledge-based economy `the centre-piece of its economic policy', but it doesn't seem to have a clear direction on how to get there. Labour's industry development policy paper includes the breathtaking assertion that `New Zealand's future depends on our ability to build a knowledge-driven economy', but it doesn't offer any obvious knowledge-industry-specific measures -- such as increasing Government's use of the Internet and other information technology, for example.

And the minor parties don't offer much hope either. The Alliance responded to the Bright Future package by claiming that the best way of creating a knowledge economy was making tertiary education free, and ACT criticized how much the programme would cost. Both utterly predictable, and both, really, missing the point.

What's my interest in this? Well, all going according to plan, at the end of this year I should have completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree -- majoring in Computer Science. I'm one of the too-few information technology graduates a year which the report talks about. And I am afraid.

I am afraid that in order to get a decent job, I will have to leave New Zealand -- that I will have to go to Australia, or the United States, or Europe, in order to find a position which doesn't undervalue my skills.

And I don't want to have to do that. Because I happen to like it here.

Copyright (C) 1999 Matthew Thomas (mpt @ mailandnews . com).

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