Pick up the phone New Zealand, the world is calling

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
20 May, 2020

New Zealand’s fortress of five million has repelled the coronavirus. But as Kiwis emerge from enforced curfew, some strategic thinking is needed to repair the carnage. Jobs have been destroyed, businesses lie in tatters and hopes have been dashed.

Now it is time to pick up the pieces and rebuild an economy shattered by the both the virus and the Government’s war against it. While Minister of Finance Grant Robertson may think otherwise, it will take more than the Government’s chequebook to resurrect what has been lost during the seven-week lockdown.

Rebuilding livelihoods will take both courage and imagination. Fortunately, opportunities abound.

Among the easiest option is following the lead of post-World War II United States and welcoming the world’s most talented into this Covid-free fortress. With “gold standard” quarantining at the border – well-monitored, strictly enforced and fully-funded by those who want to come – there is every reason to let the talented in.

Filling up the hotels near the country’s international airports with quarantined arrivals will be just the start of the economic benefits from a limited, tactical reopening of New Zealand’s borders.

Hollywood is calling

After defeating the virus, Middle Earth is an even more attractive location for television and film production. New Zealand Film Commission chief executive Annabelle Sheehan is reportedly in discussion with “a lot of international studios.”

With strict quarantining at the border, New Zealand should lower the drawbridge to movie stars and film crews. From hospitality to rental car companies, and from unemployed actors to technicians, what better way is there to breathe life back into the arts, entertainment and hospitality sectors?

And with the Covid-free appeal, the Government should resist the film studios’ addiction to subsidies. Indeed, this time round it should be New Zealand charging the studios the price of admission: provided they can meet the costs of quarantine, New Zealand’s playground can be theirs.

Exporting education

Reviving the international education sector should also be at the top of the list. At more than $5 billion and supporting over 50,000 jobs, export education is the country’s fourth biggest export sector.

Along with Australia, New Zealand is one of the few English-speaking countries safe for foreign students. Provided the tertiary sector is willing to meet the costs of quarantine, export education can now be resurrected.

Citing the strain on the health authorities of policing quarantine arrangements, a week ago Finance Minister Grant Robertson expressed some reticence about opening the border to students until 2021.

Robertson should reconsider. A few dozen extra quarantine police should not block a multi-billion-dollar export industry. If more officials are needed, the Ministry of Health should simply hire them and charge the cost to the universities and their students.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison quickly recognised the benefits to that economy if it started receiving international students in July this year. If New Zealand gives Australia a six-month head start, it will never catch up.

Sporting bonanza

Beyond the arts and education, international sport shows promise.

The European Skiing World Cup was cut short at the end of February and the Winter Olympics is only 20 months away. Head coach of the New Zealand ski team, Nils Coberger reports unprecedented interest from overseas ski teams wanting to train in New Zealand during our winter.

As every Kiwi sports addict knows, skiing is not the only sport interrupted by the coronavirus. Sporting leagues the world over have been put on ice.

Whether it is the Heineken Cup, the Six Nations or the English County cricket season, sports players and fans are desperate for their favourite competitions to resume. With no crowds in this post-Covid world, there is no need for big stadiums.

If Australia can host the Warriors, Sports New Zealand should extend an open invitation to any sporting league interested in broadcasting games from down-under – provided they are willing to meet the costs of quarantining.

Allocating international sports competitions around the country would provide a shot in the arm for the ailing tourism and hospitality sectors.

Open for business

Apple operates a research-based innovation hub in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter. Built around the creative genius of PowerbyProxi, a spin-out from University of Auckland's Engineering School which Apple acquired in 2017, the Apple team leads the world in wireless charging.

Coupled with New Zealand’s other attractions, including a top ranking in the international league tables for ease of doing business, New Zealand’s Covid-19 safe-haven status could be marketed to attract other high-tech multinationals to pursue their research and development here.

Just as with sports teams, the Government should lay down the welcome mat for businesses interested in relocating staff to New Zealand – subject only to satisfactory quarantining. And though they may come here simply to escape the virus, doubtless many will stay.

The million or so Kiwi diaspora working overseas are natural ambassadors for marketing New Zealand as a great place to do business. New Zealand Trade and Enterprise should enlist them to help attract businesses to set up here.

Foreign investment

New Zealand’s Covid-free status may also make the country more attractive for overseas investors.

International trade, capital and know-how has always been important for New Zealand’s ongoing prosperity – and never more so than now. Yet New Zealand’s recent track record in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) is poor. The Overseas Investment Act is one of the most restrictive regulatory regimes in the world.

For inexplicable reasons, the Government announced proposals last week to make its already hostile FDI regime even stricter. Led by Associate Finance Minister David Parker, Wellington appears to view foreign investment as a threat, rather than an opportunity.

Parker is right to say the value of business assets has collapsed due to the coronavirus, particularly in tourism and hospitality. That reflects the uncertainty of future cashflows and the unwillingness of domestic investors to commit capital to these sectors.

But this makes it even more important to encourage offshore investors to help resuscitate New Zealand’s failing firms. Foreign capital is more critical when firms have collapsed. New Zealand should be opening the door to overseas investors not slamming it shut.

The Coronavirus sent New Zealanders to their strongholds for the last seven weeks. Now is the time for Kiwis to lift their heads above the parapet. The country must take advantage of the opportunities calling out. Of course, this is not without risk. But Kiwis are courageous. They must insist the Government has the courage to look outwards too.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates