Official from PM: It's the e-economy, stupid

Paul Swain told a hoary joke about speechwriting. Helen Clark was 20 minutes late and spoke woodenly. They seemed symbolic of missing, not catching, the jet to the wonder economy they were extolling at Mr Swain’s e-summit last week.

Actually Mr Swain’s ancient joke – the fired speechwriter’s final speech notes for a bullying minister list on page 1 an ambitious set of points the minister will make in the speech, then on page 2 say only “now you’re on your own, you bastard” – backhandedly underlined the e-economy’s unpredictability.

And the content of Ms Clark’s speech was on the button: a blue-skies vision of an e-New Zealand by 2010. It was her own work: handwritten late the night before, drawing on her own observations this year and feedback from a group of chief executives corralled by TVNZ chair Ross Armstrong. It was her most important in months.

This was a very different Ms Clark from last year’’s pre-election evocations of a past golden age of social policy and environmentalist ideals, hitched awkwardly to nation-building through the arts. Her e-summit speech was wholly forward-looking.

It was, in effect, the government’s manifesto for its next two years. And it signposted a shift of focus.

Ms Clark strewed about notions of “challenge”, “opportunity”, “dare to excel” – words not commonly heard from the left. She painted a New Zealand 10 years hence with a distinct (and maybe even achievable) niche in the global economy. She linked success in that “new economy” to creativity and said the arts must be at the “very centre” of the school curriculum.

And who will do this if our brightest are scarpering overseas? Ms Clark wrenched free of the handwringing about emigration and looked instead to immigration: “poaching” other countries’ bright people to live in an attractive environment. To paraphrase, she was replacing “brain drain” doom with “talent tango” optimism.

And where was the welfare state in this? No 13 in a list of 13 definers of the New Zealand of 2010. The “opportunity” part of one of Labour’s 1999 slogans has taken precedence over the “security” part. The economy is now the central focus.

But with a characteristic twist. Ms Clark is not Sir William Birch.

“I believe business knows that a vision for e-commerce fits into a larger vision for a society that is wired up, innovative and accepts no limits on its potential,” she said. This is the “knowledge society” – or, as she put it, the “knowledge-driven economy and society” – around which, I wrote here in September, the government is refocusing its programme.

In other words, the e-economy is not just an IT matter or even just a business matter; it sprawls across all policy areas. Ms Clark underlined this by fronting to the summit nearly all the cabinet top table besides e-minister Swain: Jim Anderton (uncharacteristically doing more listening than talking, as at the business summit the week before), Michael Cullen, Steve Maharey, Trevor Mallard, Pete Hodgson and Parekura Horomia.

By implication, this heavyweight turnout was also saying the e-economy will affect not just readers of business pages and IT sections but everybody. Even discounting by half the futuristic scenarios painted by the summit’s invigorating foreign speakers, we face not just a changed economy but a changed society – and during this decade.

That point was reinforced by matter-of-fact accounts of potentially market-changing e-initiatives by supposedly “old-economy” operatives such as Sanfords’ Eric Barratt in the fish trade and the Wool Board’’s Lance Wiggins.

The specific challenge for the government is to develop policy that will make the best of this. It is also to turn the government itself into an e-accessible (and so cheaper) beast to deal with. Mr Swain’s strategy got a “B” from American e-government guru Mark Boyer, though Mr Boyer later did rate two departmental e-initiatives “best practice”.

What does all this say about Ms Clark? That she learns fast and well. That she is developing and growing as Prime Minister, as she did as Opposition leader. That she now has a forward programme to replace the mostly backward-looking credit card.

The likely result? A change in the structure and nature of the political debate next year.