Bobbling on the tides of history

From a mountain top the detail on the lowlands is insignificant and you can see to the horizon on all sides. It is a place for grand thoughts, contemplation of the big picture.

The transcendent political question for 2001, as Helen Clark descends from the rarified atmosphere of Mount Aconcagua, is whether, amidst the lilliputian lowlands distractions, she can elevate the country’s policy focus to the horizon.

In the lowlands there is a squabble about emigration — of people, businesses and jobs. Some say free markets have done the damage, others higher taxes and a re-regulated labour market. That is, both say ideology has caused the haemorrhage.

For the lie to that, you need listen only to the chattering classes of rich Australia. Instead of contentment and confidence, there is angst as intense as here.

Australian businesses are said to be disappearing into the maws of multinational corporations as mere branch operations as they internationalise and rationalise. Bright people are said to be being vacuumed up by regional and head offices, into New York, London, Singapore — with worse to come, as an ageing Europe scours its ethnic outposts for educated young people. Australia is said to be too small and slow-witted to carve out a bright future in the newer economic activities which will generate the riches of the future.

Australia and New Zealand are both bobbling on the boiling currents of a global transformation of society that is driven by technology and the instinctive human responses to technology far more than by ideology. Now that we are firmly in the new millennium (and not the computer-generated facsimile of last year), it is that tectonic societal shift which demands a policy response, not the symptoms governments have been focused on.

A decade ago the centre-left third-wayer Robert Reich described the shift in terms that still hold. A small number (let’s say, 15 to 20 per cent) can ride the technological tides to wealth. Those who can’t will be squeezed in a global labour market in which a stirring China will be a huge player or must scratch lean pickings serving the select few.

The cities, regions or countries that do well over this next decade will be those which can get more than their share of that 15 to 20 per cent.

This is why governments and political parties round the world are chanting the “knowledge economy” mantra. It is why since September, as I noted here at the time of the (then still unheralded) shift, Ms Clark has made the “knowledge society”, as she prefers to call it, her government’s central focus.

So, for example, in August she is hosting with Auckland University a major conference for chief executives featuring big-name foreign gurus. There is to be a heavy emphasis on spreading new-economy “knowledge” more widely, not just making a buck for the fastest movers.

Which is the point. Past technological upheavals have over time caused “all boats to rise”, to use a free-marketeers’ favourite nostrum.

The problem for governments, which need majorities in the here and now, is that all boats don’t rise the same amount, or at the same time, or at the same speed. In each revolution some boats at first sink and others leap out of the water — both undeservedly, it seems to many awash in the wake. The politics of this is fraught, as we well know.

Ms Clark devoted last year to these politics of pain, applying palliatives to symptoms. But too much of the social fabric is too frayed for palliatives to meet Labour’s early 1980s ideals. A leap of imagination is needed if we are to recover social harmony.

It will therefore not be enough to reduce politics in the 2000s decade to a choice of a left-conservatism defined by Helen Clark and a right-conservatism defined by National, which is how it has been shaping since the late 1990s.

The 2000s demand innovation. A first seed was sown by Simon Upton in a valedictory lecture in December: to plug into the “Kiwi diaspora”, as have those other nations with far-flung expatriate populations, the Jews and the Irish.

This seed will in fact be watered at the August “knowledge society” conference. How well Ms Clark cultivates this garden this year may well define her government’s ultimate success or failure.