Hard calls to nurture green shoots

KIRK HOPE
Last updated 13:56 11/02/2014
kirk hope
Kirk Hope is the chief executive of the New Zealand Bankers' Association.

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OPINION: The last few years have been extremely challenging for New Zealand - the Canterbury earthquakes, a recession, and the global financial crisis. Given these challenges the need to focus on building a more competitive and productive economy is greater than ever before.

The stark reality is that our economy needs to be put on a more competitive footing if Kiwi businesses and families are to continue to grow and prosper, and our most vulnerable are protected.

For too long the competitiveness of the New Zealand economy has suffered as successive governments have heaped costs on business without imposing adequate discipline on their own spending.

For this reason the New Zealand banking industry welcomed the government's commitment at the beginning of this electoral term to a business growth agenda aimed at helping companies grow and building a more competitive economy. 

The business growth plan identifies six key areas that the government will focus on in an effort to achieve these goals. The six areas are capital markets, innovation and ideas, skilled workplaces, natural resources, infrastructure, and export markets.

Real progress in these areas from the government is critical if we are to have any hope of achieving the economic progress that we so badly need.

So three years in how is the government's business growth agenda going from an industry perspective? Given the challenging conditions, good progress has been made in a number of areas and we applaud the government for this, although more work is still needed.

After a period of sluggish post-recession growth our economy is starting to flourish. Growth at around three per cent is higher than most other developed countries.

We're seeing the best terms of trade since 1973. After tax wages are up, a comprehensive tax reform programme has been carried out, and progress has been made in cutting red tape and reforming the labour market.

There are also promising signs in the innovation and infrastructure space with both public and private sector investment increasing, and a renewed commitment from the government to prioritise these areas.

So overall the government is doing a good job of nurturing the green shoots of recovery and working to create the conditions necessary to make our economy more competitive, and our businesses - big and small - growing strongly. 

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However, from a banking industry perspective there are some areas where the government's actions have not quite matched the rhetoric of the business growth agenda.

There is still a concerning amount of regulation being produced by the bureaucracy that places unnecessary and substantial compliance costs on businesses. Far too often officials don't seem to think through the negative impacts that badly drafted legislation and excessive red-tape can have on business growth.

Business often hears from government about 'better regulation, less regulation' but all too often this message does not seem to make it through to officials.

That's not to say we oppose all regulation. On the contrary, we strongly support quality regulation that is well-targeted and enforced.

All regulation should achieve a clearly defined purpose without imposing unnecessary costs and unintended consequences on businesses and consumers. More than lip service is needed to make sure we get regulation right. In a country and economy the size of New Zealand we can't afford to get it wrong.

More work is also needed on savings policy. Arguably developing an effective retirement income and savings policy is one of the most pressing public policy challenges facing New Zealand, yet successive governments have failed to address it.

The stark reality is if we don't take substantial steps to address this then there is little doubt that future generations will be significantly worse off financially.

It is important that in making progress in this area the government is not distracted by a low level political debate around the age of eligibility.

Rather, politicians need to focus on moving towards a return to a compulsory savings scheme, reassessing the universal nature of New Zealand Superannuation, and working to reform our tax system to better encourage and incentivise savings and investment.

There is no doubt that the government has made a good start to implementing aspects of the business growth agenda. However, the real challenge for the government now is to make progress in tackling the more challenging and fundamental aspects of the policy.

The hard stuff if you like. This will not be an easy task, but it is one that is vital for the future strength of the New Zealand economy, and it is one with which the banking industry and the wider business community stand ready to assist.

*Kirk Hope is the chief executive of the New Zealand Bankers' Association.

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