The Herald's 2021 front pages: Vaccines, variants and victories (NZ Herald)

The Herald’s 2021 front pages: Vaccines, variants and victories (NZ Herald)

The Herald’s Tim McCready looks back at the stories and headlines that shaped the front pages of the paper this year.

We had every reason to think this year would be better than 2020. The front page of the New Zealand Herald on January 1 shared that optimism: “With a vaccine rollout and travel bubbles looming, there are signs 2021 is looking up.”

And yet here we are, wrapping up another tumultuous year.

So much has happened that it is hard to believe it was early this year that the storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters took place. The Herald led with ‘Democracy under attack’ as its cover story on the insurrection as leaders met to ratify the election victory of Joe Biden.

Despite his exit from the Oval Office this year, Trump’s face featured on the front pages of the Herald five times over the year (many will be thankful this is significantly down from 15 last year). President Biden had a relatively quiet year, appearing just three times on the covers (compared with 10 last year).

Other significant events that shaped the year and the front pages were the death of Prince Philip in April, the prolonged Samoan democracy crisis in May, the freak tornado in Auckland in June, and the New Lynn supermarket terror attack in September.

Topping the count of cover appearances again this year is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who featured 42 times – down from 62 in 2020.

Infrastructure: Auckland's light rail project poised to take a major step (NZ Herald)

Infrastructure: Auckland’s light rail project poised to take a major step (NZ Herald)

Before the end of this year, the Government will decide on the route, mode, and delivery for the project for the light rail project, which will run between Auckland’s city centre and Māngere, connecting major employment hubs in the city and the airport at each end.

Transport Minister Michael Wood acknowledges the decision has been a long time coming. He first launched the promise of light rail during his campaign for the Mount Roskill by-election in 2016 which brought him into Parliament. Labour campaigned on light rail at the 2017 election, but the move was stymied by Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First in the last term of Government.

“It is no secret that it was in a fairly challenging stage at the end of the last term, and it had the political knockback between parties,” Wood says. “We had to have a reset which is effectively what happened this year. But it’s put us in a good position to take it to the next stage.”

The three options under consideration are:

• Light rail, a modern tram on city streets;
• Light metro, underground in a tunnel under the isthmus, and underground in Māngere and Onehunga, and at street level in other areas; and
• Tunnelled light rail, underground from Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill, and then up at street level to Auckland airport.

They were chosen after an assessment by the Auckland Light Rail team from over 50 different options for modes and routes against the project’s three objectives: improving accessibility, reducing Auckland’s carbon footprint, and unlocking urban development in the corridor.

Not a simple decision

APEC 2021: The Kiwi women moving the world forward at Apec 2021 (NZ Herald)

APEC 2021: The Kiwi women moving the world forward at Apec 2021 (NZ Herald)

Women’s economic empowerment has been a key pillar of Apec’s work, and since New Zealand last hosted Apec two decades ago, has made significant gains.

Economies across Apec have worked together to promote those with “untapped economic potential” — people who have faced barriers to full economic participation — to provide the energy and vision for future growth.

A key focus of this work has been addressing the structures that hold back women’s full economic participation. While there is still significant progress to be made, as this year’s host New Zealand is leading the way with three women — Andrea Smith, Barbara Chapman, and Rachel Taulelei — holding pivotal roles to deliver the year’s event.

Andrea Smith

One of the key diplomats leading New Zealand’s year as Apec host is Andrea Smith, Apec deputy secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

She has been in the role since 2017, and in that time has seen events that have put New Zealand’s hosting of Apec at risk — including the fire at the Sky City International Convention Centre fire where the CEO Summit was originally to be held, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which ground travel to a halt and forced Apec to go fully virtual.

Smith says that as host, New Zealand is at the leading edge of shaping the agenda for the Asia-Pacific and has “skin in the game”.

“Fourteen of our top 20 export markets are Apec members, including the three largest economies in the world — the United States, China and Japan — and 18 of our 19 free trade agreements are with Apec partners.” says Smith.

APEC 2021: Think Apec on Zoom is wild? Try Russia in 2012 (NZ Herald)

APEC 2021: Think Apec on Zoom is wild? Try Russia in 2012 (NZ Herald)

I was a participant in Apec’s Voices of the Future in 2012, held in Vladivostok, in Russia’s far east. The world looked considerably different back then.

Hu Jintao addressed the CEO Summit as President of China, Hillary Clinton gave a speech as US Secretary of State, on behalf of then-President Obama who was campaigning for the upcoming election, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was part of an education panel discussion, before having to depart early after of the death of her father.

As a New Zealand Voices of the Future delegate, I spent time with Prime Minister Sir John Key just ahead of his bilateral with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where the two were set to discuss the free trade agreement between New Zealand and Russia (negotiations were suspended in 2014).

Key spoke candidly about what it was like to represent New Zealand, a small economy, as an equal at the Apec table and engage with the world’s most powerful leaders.

Of course, one of the highlights of travelling to Apec was the cultural immersion and the people I met.

Russia went all out hosting Apec — US$21 billion was spent getting the city ready for the summit, vodka and caviar were prominent features at networking events, and a US$9 million firework display at the closing ceremony was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen.

At the summit’s gala dinner, I was introduced to the father of one of the Russian Voices of the Future participants. He was surrounded by bodyguards, and, unbeknown to me, was the Russian Energy minister.

I gave him my last remaining gift from NZ — an Ecoya candle. In exchange, he reached into his jacket pocket and handed me a large gold coin, minted to commemorate the new 1800km-long gas pipeline to Vladivostok.

Fast-forward nine years and it is NZ’s turn to host Apec. Things look so different now, with the pandemic requiring the summit to be delivered live over a virtual platform.

This year, I am the content producer for the Apec CEO Summit, as well as MC for the Voices of the Future programme. While the pandemic has meant attendees miss out on a visit to New Zealand, technological developments allow them to still experience NZ’s characteristic values of manaakitanga and whanaungatanga — a shared sense of humanity and connectedness — and work together on the issues that matter to them.

In 2012, when I helped write a declaration to Apec leaders on the issues we were most concerned about as future leaders, I was nominated by my peers to present our work, which was broadcast live on Russian TV. I spoke about the opportunity for SMEs to transform the economy of the Apec region, and encouraged leaders to support smaller organisations to grow. While the process of writing the declaration was a good one, I doubt Putin ever saw it.

This year feels like the dawn of a new era, in many ways, in digital diplomacy. As Apec chair, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will spend time next week with Voices of the Future delegates, receiving their declaration and hearing what matters to them, ahead of her meeting with leaders of the 21 Apec economies.

It is the next generation, after all, who are the biggest stakeholders in the work that Apec is doing.

CEO plea - 'Open border so we can source staff'

CEO plea – ‘Open border so we can source staff’

The tight New Zealand labour market threatens to undermine our post-pandemic economic recovery as skills shortages increase.

It is such a headache for CEOs that a considerable 71 cent of respondents to the Herald survey say sourcing and retaining skilled staff is one of the key issues keeping them awake at night.

Stats NZ data shows the unemployment rate fell from a recent peak of 5.3 per cent in the September 2020 quarter to 4 per cent in the June 2021 quarter.

The situation is exacerbated by the current Covid-related border restrictions.

Some 72 per cent of survey respondents say their business operations have been hindered by the inability to bring essential skilled executives, investors, or workers across the border.

A further 25 per cent have not been affected.

Spark CEO Jolie Hodson says she sees pressure on skills in areas like cyber security, data automation and AI.

Why a tax on wealth is not seen as the answer

Why a tax on wealth is not seen as the answer

The Green party has suggested a wealth tax as a solution to help close the inequality gap between people who own and people who earn. This has been proposed at 1 per cent on net wealth over $1 million and 2 per cent on net wealth over $2m (applying at an individual rather than household level).

The Greens estimate this is likely to raise around $7.9 billion in its first year. Business leaders are not in favour, with a combined 82 per cent of survey respondents saying they do not support the consideration of a wealth tax.

“If we had a properly functioning housing market, the whole question of extremely large increases in personal wealth would largely go away,” said ICBC (NZ) chair Don Brash, a former Reserve Bank Governor. “What is so offensive in the current situation is that most of the huge increases in wealth are not the result of hard work, or of inventing something new, or of building a business but just the result of buying lots of land with borrowed money and waiting.”

Many suggested this form of tax would fail.

Said SkyCity Entertainment director Silvana Schenone, “people who will be caught by this will also be able to restructure their affairs or seek advice to not trigger the wealth tax. Also, wealth inequality should be addressed at the root of the problem, not as a punishment to the wealthier end.

“Wealthy New Zealanders would leave or restructure their affairs,” agreed Devon Funds Management’s Paul Glass.

“All a wealth tax will do is result in people shifting their assets to more desirable jurisdictions,” says an investment company CEO. “We want to attract capital, not send it offshore.”

 

What can we learn from business?

What can we learn from business?

Education is an issue CEOs care passionately about. “Educating young New Zealanders can have a very positive effect in reducing crime and improving their future and that of New Zealand,” says Mainfreight boss Don Braid.

Over recent years, educational attainment levels at both primary and secondary schools in New Zealand has come under increased scrutiny.

The Herald’s Mood of the Boardroom survey asked business leaders to rate the overall educational fitness of young New Zealanders to play a role in the workforce, on a scale of 1-5 where 1 = not impressive and 5 = very impressive. They gave this a score of 2.76/5.

“The young people that I meet who have been educated at schools across our socio-economic community really impress me,” says a director. “Smart, articulate, world and socially aware. They give me much hope for our country.”

A technology boss shares a similar sentiment: “We can only judge by the people we see in job interviews and the interns we take over summer, and their calibre, enthusiasm and drive to learn and succeed is strong.”

However, multiple international assessments have shown New Zealand students slipping in global educational rankings. “The recent PISA score from testing our 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science was the lowest ever in the OECD, and a similar story occurs in the 2020 TIMSS global comparison,” says chair Craig Stobo. “To then hear the Minister of Education say this year that we should celebrate the achievements of pupils in other countries left me speechless.”

The most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) saw New Zealand Year 9 students’ scores fall by the largest margins since the study began in 1994. Their maths score fell 11 points to 482 and their science score fell 14 points to 499, on a scale where 500 is the midpoint.

The only certain thing is uncertainty

The only certain thing is uncertainty

Influential law firm boss Hayden Wilson says New Zealand has as a country been very good at adapting to the crisis response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But he warns the post-Covid world is not going to look like it was in 2019 before the virus emerged.

And business should step up and engage with government and support debate on NZ’s future.

Wilson, who chairs Dentons Kensington Swan, reckons we cannot continue to look back and hope for things to go back to the way they were before.

“The only thing that is really certain at the moment is that things are going to continue to be uncertain,” he says. “The real challenge for business is going to be how to adapt to a constantly changing world.”

Wilson, who plays a key role in his firm’s relationships with government agencies, says we should expect the Government to be able to manage uncertainty and communicate how it is dealing with uncertainty well.

“Take for example a date for reopening the borders,” he says. “When you are dealing with a virus that is constantly changing, that we are still learning about, the idea that we can say at this point in time we are going to open the borders defies the science.”

He says we need to be able to have a sensible discussion about what business and government needs, and what the New Zealand community needs to respond to changes — but those discussions are hard because that is not something we are particularly well-equipped to deal with as a community, in the media, or in our political environment. “We have to get comfortable with the fact that this means we’re not going to have certain dates, deadlines and pathways.

“We’ve got to have a broad understanding of what the principles are on which decisions are going to be made, and how we’re going to be engaged with that.”

But business must lean in — not to support the government — but to support that discussion. “But I don’t think we are any better than anyone else in the world at adapting to the slow burn changes that we’re all facing like climate change.”

Even putting climate change to the side, we have big tension points in the New Zealand economy that will require transformational change, and these will all impact business — even if not immediately. “It’s our infrastructure deficit, which obviously affects business directly, but it’s also the state of our education and health systems, housing and housing affordability, which will have a fundamental effect on business long term, but aren’t necessarily seen as a business issue,” says Wilson.

He says we have to take the opportunity to look at how to fix some of those longer-term tensions, especially when you consider the amount of money that’s available to government in terms of Covid recovery.

There is a role for business to engage sensibly in discussions around these tension points, and a role for government to invite that participation in ways that are nuanced and more sophisticated than what we have previously seen in our political debate.

Wilson uses the feebate scheme, designed to promote lower-emissions vehicle sales, as an example.

“The Government made a fairly orthodox change that couldn’t be seen as anything much more than a tinker around the edges, and there has been a massive pile-on, which makes it very difficult to do the incremental things that need to change.”

It will require business taking a role as thought-leaders and engaging with government. “Sensible businesses need to start thinking about how they can take responsibility for being part of the debate,” he says. Of course, for this to happen, Government will need to be receptive to business.

Wilson says that currently, government is not as receptive as it should be to feedback from business.

“Our political environment doesn’t really facilitate that risk-free engagement,” he says. “The media and other political parties treat it as a horse race.”

He says while there are some parts of government that are interested in having these discussions, government departments will need to find a way to unlock risk adverseness where it’s appropriate.

“We need to be much more willing to be open about having discussions in areas where we are looking longer term and planning New Zealand’s response.”

Wilson says the Labour-led Government is run tightly by a small group of senior ministers, in whom the Prime Minister has confidence.

“Some of them are doctrinaire, some are stubborn, some are cautious.”

But, he says we have seen things like the wage subsidy where the approach taken was revolutionary, and gave some insight into what can happen if you have different thinking — “and I think increasingly there will be a push to do that.”