Talkfests and Nimbyism the nemesis of good roads and housing

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
NZ Herald
29 February, 2024

Two weeks ago, some of the contributors to the substantial Economic Forum run by the University of Waikato unintentionally took me back to the days of New Zealand’s National Development Conferences in 1968 and 1972.

They did so by calling on central government to lead and set a clear vision and action plan.

For example, with respect to the underinvestment in public infrastructure, such as roads and piped water, the obvious need is for more investment. But by whom? And why are those responsible, not already doing it?

One suggested answer was along these lines: “We” all know what needs to be done, but the lack of a clear, collective national ‘end’ makes it very difficult for would-be investors to know what will be funded.”

In a similar vein, an opinion piece writer last week asked: “Just where is New Zealand headed, where do we want to go, and what kind of a country are we trying to build over the next 50 to 100 years? How can we develop our unique places, and how do we make them better, so they are the springboard to future success for generations to come”.

The above notion that an unidentified “we” can answer these questions, as if five million people agree, was common in the forum and dominates official policy papers in Wellington.

Those National Development Conferences long ago were equally well-intentioned. They sought agreement from contending interests about how to achieve a more prosperous future for New Zealand. Indicative goals for things like immigration, export and national income growth were proposed.

Talkfests have a role to play, but I doubt that many in the Wellington Establishment at that time thought that importers and protected manufacturers would agree to give up their privileged positions under import licensing.

As history shows, they did not agree. The notion of agreed future indicative outcomes lapsed.

From this writer’s public policy perspective, “we must” advocacy is unhelpful. Who is to do what and why? And what is stopping them? What should be the role of central government relative to the roles for local government and private initiative?

Without consideration of such questions, there is no recognisable problem diagnosis.

Once impediments are identified, options for addressing them would start to surface. Facts would be collected. Insights from the experience of other countries and industries would be sought.

The notion that “we” are all one would disappear. The scope for less rather than more central government direction might be considered.

For example, in the case of network industries, such as roads, piped water, electricity and telecommunications, an obvious question to ask is whether outcomes would be different under different governance arrangements. Why, for example, does there not seem to be serious underinvestment in telecommunications? Why do our phones not get “network unavailable” beeps as often as our roads get congested?

Half-way through this diagnostic process it will be clear to those taking it seriously that aspiration and exhortation to “‘pull our socks up and do what needs to be done” is not a plan.

There is a second, and much bigger problem with the overuse of the ambiguous “we” pronoun in public policy discussions. It is that the pretended agreement does not exist.

Issues are politically difficult because people and interest groups are pulling politicians in different directions all at once. Interest groups widely want more money from government, each for their own patch. Taxpayers think differently. Elsewhere, environmentalists are at odds with developers. NIMBYism blocks housing.

Instances, where we are “a team of five million” in pursuit of a common goal are rare, if they exist at all. Some will always oppose the changes that others advocate. That is a healthy freedom. And even if there is agreement today, how long will it last?

Such loose public policy debate can easily confuse running a company with running a government.

A single company can have a clear vision and a settled strategy for pursuing that vision. Those who do not share that approach will work somewhere else. Staff turnover is a fact of life.

A country is not like a company in those respects. Politics is about messy compromise, particularly under MMP. The events of one week can induce a major policy reversal.

Even if one government had a clear vision, the next will likely have a different one.


Policy debate should allow that most of the time “we” are not all one and the government is not “us”. Policy diagnosis should ask what is stopping those who could fix a problem from doing so.

To read the full article on the NZ Herald website, click here.

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