Think tanks are leading the way as political parties play it safe

Helen Clark talks about drug use

OPINION: We are living in unprecedented times with a pandemic of global proportions. For many commentators, this is seen as an opportunity to think “outside the box” about the future direction of our society and economy, and our general election seemed as good a place to start as any. Yet it threw up few new ideas, as both major parties played safe and protected their respective electoral territories. 

If the major parties cannot be relied on to bring big new ideas to the table, who can? The minor parties can make a substantive contribution. For example, under the previous government NZ First promoted the Billion Trees scheme and the Provincial Growth Fund, while the Greens advanced the Climate Change Commission and a series of related environmental and climate initiatives. 

What about the public service? It works within an environment that is constitutionally and politically constrained, responding to the programme of the government of the day and to the policy demands of major events, so there may be few sources of innovation here. 

Another option is think tanks, which are research-based policy and advocacy institutes that form a transmission belt between academia and politics. A recent newsletter of the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand (IPANZ) argues that think tanks can bring a range of perspectives and advice to governments, introducing new ideas and provoking public debate. 

Another option is think tanks, which are research-based policy and advocacy institutes that form a transmission belt between academia and politics. A recent newsletter of the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand (IPANZ) argues that think tanks can bring a range of perspectives and advice to governments, introducing new ideas and provoking public debate.

Have our think tanks risen to the occasion? The corporate-funded New Zealand Initiative (NZI) recently published its “Roadmap to Recovery. Briefing to the Incoming Government”.

From this perspective, the pandemic is seen not so much as an opportunity to think differently about our policy settings, but rather as a chance to re-energise a traditional model of low taxes, deregulated labour markets (“laws that stop adults from selling their labour for a low wage … are egregious”), limited government and regulation, greater inward foreign investment, reliance on market mechanisms for climate change action and other environmental concerns, reining in the Reserve Bank, and a return to basics in the educational system.

If the NZI’s prescription might be seen as something of a “back to a pre-pandemic future”, we at The Helen Clark Foundation (THCF) foresee a chance to rebuild New Zealand into a more equitable society, seeing the pandemic as a policy opportunity, rather than just as a fiscal and economic danger. To date we have released three reports in our “post-pandemic futures” series.

These take specific challenges facing us post-pandemic – loneliness, climate change and NZ’s low wage economy – and propose bold solutions to tackle them. Most recently, together with our partner the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER), we have been at the forefront of public debate over the economic impact of minimum wage rises, arguing for their value as a tool to both address inequality and drive productivity.

A third perspective is provided by the University of Auckland’s Centre for Informed Futures with its “New Zealand’s Economic Future: Covid-19 as a Catalyst for Innovation”. It sees opportunities in a knowledge economy through research and development, and education, and making Auckland a globally competitive hub. It tackles issues to do with tax (carbon, land) and the encouragement of multinational corporations. It also envisages a role for central government in co-ordinating across sectors and actors.

Between them, three of New Zealand’s leading think tanks have responded to the challenge of the pandemic with a range of perspectives and ideas on possible directions for our society. As the newsletter from IPANZ states: “The public service and the Government can benefit from ideas emanating from independent bodies.” On the evidence of the policy response of these think tanks to the pandemic, that function seems to be fulfilled.

There are still questions as to the funding, purpose, “bias”, and research prowess of think tanks. For example, IPANZ asks whether we need more think tanks, how that might be achieved, how they might be funded, and how to deal with the quality of their research and the impact of their bias.

This is why, at THCF, we have no formal relationship with any political party, rely a lot on memberships, and why donations and partnerships need to meet strict oversight criteria supervised by the board of trustees, including final signoff on any research report after extensive independent peer review.

In other parts of the world, while think tanks have initially encouraged an outpouring and pluralisation of ideas, critiques and solutions, they can also end up solidifying the hold of pre-existing ideological positions and powerful interests. So, we need to advance – but also tread with care.

Peter Davis is chair of the board of trustees for The Helen Clark Foundation.

Published on STUFF, 23rd December 2020

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