Big ideas are dangerous, especially in politics. Those who promote them are almost always demoted by the voters.
The exception is in revolutionary times, such as the 1980s. But even then the voters eventually took revenge. They crashed revolutionary Labour from 48 to 28 per cent between 1987 and 1996 and National, which continued the revolution, from 48 to 21 per cent between 1990 and 2002.
So big ideas, the theme of this month’s Management, are usually for thinking, not doing — at least in politics.
Here are some I have heard.
Transfer more decisions from MPs to the people. Select the next Governor-General by plebiscite and watch the mana of the office grow and really make it the guardian of the constitution — and in due course make us wonder why the head of state is a British woman. Make more big decisions by referendum, not knife-edge parliamentary majorities.
We are all indigenous now. Which doesn’t just mean, “move over Maori”. It means valuing all aspects of indigenousness, including the fact of cultural and spiritual difference and conjunction.
Leapfrog Australia. Turning CER into a single market is like pushing on the end of a string: progress comes only when Australia pulls on the other end — and the risk then is that we sign up to Australia’s prescriptive regulation. So focus CER effort not on a single market for itself but as an instrument to enhance this economy’s competitiveness in the whole world. When that criterion is failed, reallocate officials’ time to pursuing bigger fish.
Expand the defence budget. The state’s first duty is to protect its citizens. Small countries have to be exemplary international citizens, so expand the army’s numbers and capacity for peacemaking and peacekeeping. And earn respect in Asia, where our economic future lies, by also buying state-of-the-art intelligence, communications, aircraft and ships to mesh with the best. That is costly. Bite the bullet.
Go very big on agricultural science. We have nearly used up our stock of bright ideas for our agricultural industries, which are our export cash flow. Those industries need new bright ideas if they are to stay ahead of the pack and that means growing our own. Governments have barely marked time in spending on science and have shifted the focus to implementation. So a massive increase in agricultural science spending is needed.
Take clean-green seriously. Much of our tourism and some of our product exports depend on being thought clean-green. So tax brown-dirty activities and reward clean-green ones. If that’s too hard, come clean with the world and give up the clean-green pretence.
Tax spending, not saving. Taxation is not just to raise revenue for what the people want the government to do. It can encourage things we want to happen and discourage those we don’t want to happen. The grasshopper borrow-and-spend binge of the past few years is not the way to riches.
Construct a population policy. Potholing skills shortages with whomever is available at the time doesn’t fit with a drive for a top-quality society and economy — and it strains core values. A population policy requires hard thinking, not just by politicians and officials, about numbers, age distribution, fertility, immigration and diversity.
Back social entrepreneurs. The time is past when political parties and officials had all the good ideas for keeping our society coherent and equitable. Back people with good ideas and the energy to action those good ideas and don’t buckle when the media bray when some go wrong. Entrepreneurs take risks. The obverse of risk is reward.
Go big on personal responsibility. The state can’t solve all public and private ills. It has tried hard for decades and there are some things it can’t do. The state doesn’t give people diabetes; most diabetics gorge themselves into diabetes. Make sure kids know that and make sure they value work and self-sustainability.
Give all kids a good start. Not all kids start equal. Getting disadvantaged ones into top-quality early childhood education and care greatly improves their later contributions to the economy and society (and reduces the need for immigrants). So spend big and get them all in. And switch funds from hip operations to get them healthier and so more teachable and eventually work-ready.
Don’t leave big ideas to the politicians. Big ideas are for the people and that includes business.
That’s a start. Actually, it is not a start. These are not revolutionary times. Big ideas are for think tanks and magazines.