Changing the language about business

Business New Zealand is about to campaign to “harness Kiwi values so growth is portrayed as an outcome of Kiwi values, not a threat to them”. So chief executive Simon Carlaw told a National party regional conference on Saturday.

This comes off the back of a Growth and Innovation Advisory Board’s survey of values and attitudes to business and growth which, Carlaw said, found that linking New Zealanders’ strong, distinctive values to “business” and “growth” causes their attitudes to business success and opportunities to “become very positive”.

Good news. Other surveys have found depressing negativity. Which is serious. That there is not a wide public constituency for business-friendly policy is a brake not just on governments but on economic development.

Just banging the business drum will not fix that. If anything it entrenches attitudes. “Antennae in the towns and cities simply do not pick up messages broadcast in frequencies that are outside the parameters of values that are strongly held and strongly defended,” Carlaw said.

Herein lies the importance lay in Carlaw’s speech. In place of what to non-business listeners, including ministers, has sounded like broken-record carping from his and other business lobbies — to the point where ministers have stopped listening — Carlaw promised “fresh thinking”, in “new terms and language”.

That, he says, will be evident in the campaign to come, which Creative New Zealand chair and Clemenger BBDO boss Peter Biggs will guide.

But one campaign will not do. It will take many years to change the view of business as a necessary evil, fixated on profits and wealth creation, to celebration of business success as exhibiting, as Carlaw put it, “Kiwi determination and ingenuity, winning against the odds and enabling something to be put back into the community”.

That cannot be done top-down, nor, as Carlaw warned Nationalists, by resort to a “political default that simply says, ‘If elected, we’ll repeal’.” National has sounded like that these past four years.

Any change will need to be grown bottom up: in schools, pubs and clubs. That is how the pejoratives got established. It will take time. But, who knows, one day governments might run business-friendly policies because the voters demand them — not, as now, because politicians tell cynical voters they are good for them.