How not to take economic recovery seriously

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
10 July, 2020

Use of the disembodied “we” in official policy documents usually suggests a false agreement about future resource use when, in fact, there are deeply entrenched opposing interests. To fail to acknowledge the conflict is to fail to resolve it.

The Ministry for Primary Industries’ latest roadmap report, “Fit for a Better World,” fits this mould. In its short 17 pages, use of the word “we” appears 174 times and “our” appears 99 times. the report effectively proposes that the battle over whether land should be used to generate income or to restore a state of nature has been resolved.

Its key proposition is that the “health of the climate, land, water and living systems” comes first. Biogenic methane emissions are to be 20-47% below 2017 levels by 2030 which the report says will add $44 billion to primary sector exports during the next decade and increase employment by 10% by 2030.

The report declares that these aspirations aim to “accelerat[e] our economic potential” and put the food and fibres sector at the forefront of “our” export-led recovery to “lead the way to a more sustainable economy.”

Yet the document says nothing about why these specific targets were chosen, their feasibility or the costs to the community of achieving them. And it offers no clarity about who is accountable for the various proposed actions. It is a roadmap without roads. It is not a meaningful export-led recovery plan.

Of course, if a goal is unachievable, it can always be replaced by fresh, distant aspirations. How many people remember the previous Government’s objective to lift exports from 30% of GDP to 40% by 2025?

In reality, the best hope for a civil solution to the resource use dispute is a system of voluntary exchange of well-defined property rights. A tradable fishing quota was a big step forward, as would be tradeable water rights and property rights-based Resource Management Act (RMA) reform. Real progress here would help achieve environmental goals while reducing farmer distress and uncertainty while helping the whole sector move forward.

Unfortunately, a roadmap without roads looks like a ploy to get votes from those who think that good intentions are good enough. If enough voters reward aspirational pitches, the deep problems will persist and there will never be an economic recovery strategy worthy of the name.

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