Getting a national debate started

They talked for three days and went home. There were no remits or grand declarations. The government’s fears of dangerous recommendations went unmet. What was the point?

The Knowledge Wave’s second conference last week was a sort of national seminar.

It was a great place to network. Where else do you find in one room social entrepreneurs, bosses of big companies and small companies, government department grandees and workaday policy analysts, academics and scribblers, economists from left and right, lobbyists of all varieties? You could do business there, whatever your business was.

But more than that it was a place to think: a remarkable array of top thinkers from around the world and at home, a condensed scan of recent economic, social, technological and educational theories, coupled with a reminder about the environment, some ideas on leadership, marketing, some glimpses of our developing creative culture, reminders of our history and, in an acclaimed contribution by expatriate Simon Upton, our future constitutional course.

The “leadership forum”, as the second Knowledge Wave conference was dubbed, was the university in action. The business of a university is thinking — or is supposed to be. A university produces — or is supposed to — ideas, on which others can draw to make and do things.

Of course, a number of the foreign thinkers imported for the forum have been to this country before, held seminars and given speeches. They have websites and we at the edge of the planet have the internet. And the experts in each field in this country know all they have written anyway, so there was nothing new for the experts.

Or wasn’t there? Paul Romer, the American guru of new growth theory, reportedly said to Richard Florida, the guru of the importance of creative people to economic growth, after watching his glitzy production, that at last he understood what Florida is on about and would go home to think seriously about it.

But, in any case, the show wasn’t for the experts in each field — it was for the non-experts. And, in any case, experts in economic growth aren’t experts in marketing and experts in community theory are not experts in leadership skills and experts in management theory are not experts in national history. And when do thinkers get to view case studies of action outside their field, as this conference provided?

There are frequent calls for a “national debate”. Very few of those who make such calls suggest a workable mechanism for this “debate”, though they often seem to have in mind some sort of grand town meeting with everyone in attendance.

That is impossible. But an elite can gather in a sort of town meeting and then go and talk to others. National debates are usually conducted by elites. Mass involvement is usually confined to revolution or civil demonstration, but even they are usually led by elites.

The point of a national debate is to open up minds, to challenge settled ideas and maybe over time generate agreed courses of action. On that score the conference was a resounding success. There were more ideas packed into three days than you would get in a summertime of reading.

The alternative to a national debate is a competent government which establishes a course of action with which the people feel comfortable.

These two don’t fit easily together. Ideas which challenge the ideas on which a government has set its course of action risk, in a government’s eyes, unsettling public opinion and knocking the country off course.

Moreover, governments depend on voters’ comfort for re-election. They can lead only so far as they feel voters will be comfortable with.

So governments are not usually keen on national debates. They want national consensus. There is reason to think our government has assembled a passable consensus. It is not going to upset that.

So there was a natural tension between a conference dedicated to tossing ideas around and a government increasingly confident it has got the ideas more or less right and needs only tweak policy here and there from now on.

This tension zeroed in on the 1990s economic agenda. The government feared the conference would conclude that lifting economic growth needs a return to that agenda.

There were such advocates at the conference. And Auckland University vice-chancellor John Hood feinted in that direction in his opening speech as host. Romer said we were doing only averagely on economic efficiency, which is code for the 1990s agenda.

It doesn’t help soothe flutterings in the Beehive that economists broadly agree the current microeconomic policy settings are not geared to generating the 2.5 per cent per capita GDP growth that will get us back to the top half of the OECD in per capita wealth. Indeed, the Prime Minister seemed tacitly to acknowledge this in her speech by pushing that objective out into an indeterminate future.

Her difficulty is understandable. She knows that a policy line that smells like a return to the 1990s agenda would split her party and detach voters from her government. All economics might be global, demanding globally competitive economic policy settings, but all politics is local, demanding public acceptance. And in 1999 and 2002 voters demonstrated they would not accept a return to the 1990s.

So a conference which raised, even if it did not explicitly endorse, notions of internationally competitive economic policy, was unwelcome.

But this same conference also powerfully reminded everyone that, just as health and other desirable services can be more readily paid for if you are richer, economic growth will be slower if the “community” is weak. That is the point of Robert Putnam’s theory of social capital, an updated version of which he delivered at the conference.

So there is a circularity between growth and community, the linking mechanism of which is “knowledge” (education, skilling, creative energy and so on). That was the conference schema.

It is pretty much the government’s own schema so, apart from some difference of detail, it should not have been threatening to the government.

Except that the conference also had a disquieting overarching theme: leadership. Moreover, it underpinned that by inviting 115 “emerging leaders”, most in their thirties and most with impressive track records already in business, social and cultural activity. To them the 1990s are history.

The subliminal message in their presence was that there is another world coming and these people will run it. It is not the world of comfort of 2003, where the older voters still rule. Negotiating this transition is the challenge the conference subliminally posed to the government.

The transition might smoothed by a vigorous national debate. Offering a forum for one episode of that debate was the conference’s relevance.