Can Robertson inject “wellbeing” into work?

Labour and the Greens, added together, have edged past National in opinion polls. And they have edged a little nearer each other.

First: Greens co-leader James Shaw scrubs up presentably to the sorts of people who usually think Greens are sandal-wearing ether-dwellers.

Second: Labour has pushed its trade positioning Greenwards. Labour still backs free trade in goods and services, which the Greens don’t. But it has turned much warier of the regulatory dimensions of modern “trade” agreements.

Shaw worries, with cause, that the export of United States patent and intellectual property laws — its core Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) objective — would stifle innovative startups. Apple, for example, ruthlessly exploits United States’ generous laws on what can be patented.

Labour shares that worry, though its five conditions for supporting TPP mentioned only protecting Pharmac on drug patents. (Australia said on Sunday it won’t sign a deal extending drug patents. New Zealand acquiesced.)

Labour’s other conditions were: no scope for foreign companies to challenge law changes in the courts, no restrictions on restricting land sales to foreigners, protection of the Treaty of Waitangi and “meaningful gains for New Zealand farmers”.

New Zealand First would readily sign up to those conditions — and more. So would the Maori party. That adds up to 60 of Parliament’s 121 MPs.

This demise of a 40-year near-consensus stems from the fact that 2010s globalisation has taken international economic interaction far beyond the exchange of goods. So international deals go far beyond tariffs and other border protections, which was what trade deals were once about.

Globalisation now reaches through borders via the internet and complicated global value chains, which redistribute jobs, and, more recently, networks, which connect suppliers and users in new ways.

This poses complex issues for national regulators. In Tim Groser’s heyday the first principle of trade policy was an efficient domestic economy, relatively lightly regulated so firms could compete in the world.

But if regulation is too light, the bad guys get going: fly-by-night finance companies, inattention to worker safety (on farms, forests and mines), buildings that fall down in earthquakes, unliveable wages and so on. Then regulation to fix the bad guys undermines the good guys’ competitiveness.

Grant Robertson, through his “future of work commission”, is trying to draft policy that provides some economic protections and improves prospects and security for individuals but does that in the context of 2010s reality in which “work” is not the fixed-hours, fixed-place, settled-wages activity it was in Labour’s heyday.

Robertson’s “external reference group” includes people from business, including Auckland Regional Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett, Xero’s New Zealand managing director, Victoria Crone, Australian-based Maori businessman Matthew Tukaki and high-technology whizz Linc Gasking.

His and Clare Curran’s first (rather thin and plagiary-plagued) discussion paper last week was on the impact of technology on work. It focuses not on protecting jobs but the diversity of working arrangements — “defining when a person is working and when not will be an increasing challenge” — the impact of big data, changing educational needs and methods, digital access and “agility”.

Robertson says the paper has generated a big demand for meetings.

To follow this month are papers on security of income in work, education and training, economic development and sustainability and Maori and Pasifika.

The papers raise questions. Answers come later.

That delay leaves Labour open to John Key’s taunts that it has no policy. By contrast, Steven Joyce has at last said what he will implement from the Productivity Commission’s exhaustive June 2014 report on improving regulation — critical to getting a highly globalised economy up to speed. (More in a future column.)

But Key and Joyce have problems, too. Joyce has been tramping the country telling people how well their regions are doing. On Friday he issued a fourth regional growth plan, for Manawatu-Whanganui.

Is that soothing mayors and their constituents? New Zealand First’s Ron Mark says loudly it is not. Robertson cites a mayor who has torn up his National party membership. The response to my column last week suggests neither is exaggerating.

The point Joyce is missing is that GDP figures don’t measure “wellbeing”. Income flow contributes to people’s wellbeing but, as chief Treasury economist Girol Karacaoglu has pointed out, it is the stocks of various “capitals” — economic, human, natural and social — which determine true wellbeing.

Robertson agrees. So do Greens.

So expect Robertson to try to relate Labour’s eventual policy to enabling 2010s “work” to build “wellbeing”.

That is a very tall order and Labour is a long way short of a tall party. But Robertson is teasing through a relevant, modern question.