It was ACT leader David Seymour who most closely caught the mood yesterday at the Business New Zealand Election Conference.
A BusinessNZ survey had found that 85 per cent of respondents thought the government did not have a coordinated plan of action to raise New Zealand’s economic performance.
Seymour spoke before Deloitte CEO Mike Horne unveiled the survey to the conference, which was heavily dominated by government relations executives from most of the country’s top companies and business groups.
“The mood of business is sombre,” Horne said.
“Its respondents look to the post-election government to start actioning some change.”
Seymour said that the country needed some leadership that said business was a force for good.
“I’m sick of seeing business beaten down with another review, another regulation, another tax and this underlying assumption that somewhere someone is sinisterly doing something and getting away with it, and if only the government had another review or another rule, we could get on top of them.
“I want to see leadership in our government that says business is actually a thing where people come together with different needs, investors with savings, entrepreneurs with ideas, workers with time and customers with needs, and together they are stronger and better producing things they couldn’t do alone.
“That is actually a beautiful form of adult cooperation that we should celebrate and stop chasing down.
“That’s how we get more productivity, and that’s how we ultimately get on top of this cost-of-living crisis.”
Speaking to journalists outside the conference, he had a little flick at National.
“I think National’s willing to put any argument that they think will help them get elected,” he said.
“ACT is making arguments that we believe deeply.”
When Willis spoke, the survey had not been released, but she too wanted some love for business.
“We need a government that instead of talking the talk, actually invites businessmen and sees what are the barriers will help get them out of the way,” she said
But perhaps surprisingly, it was Greens co-leader James Shaw who was the only other leader at the conference to acknowledge the survey results.
He pointed to the impact that the various adverse weather events had on the country earlier in the year.
“I think that has created a lot of the context for this year’s election along with the wash-up from COVID and so on,” he said.
But if the business survey respondents – and Seymour – had offered a glass-half-empty analysis, Shaw, a constant political optimist, preferred a glass-half-full analysis.
“I just want to acknowledge that people are still in that space and so may not necessarily be thinking in terms of opportunity, but I’m going to say something that I’ve said before, which is that our response to the climate crisis, as was illustrated so painfully earlier this year, actually represents the single greatest opportunity that we have and at least a generation to grow and develop our economy, upgrade our infrastructure tech, attract investment and drive innovation.”
Shaw said the opportunity over the course of the coming decades was to build an entire new generation, of infrastructure that would support not just population growth and the regular things that we wanted infrastructure to support, but also the decarbonisation of our economy.
Shaw said that the recent announcement by Blackrock of an investment fund to finance renewable energy in New Zealand had its origins in a Boston Consulting Group report earlier this year, which said it would cost $46 billion to decarbonise the New Zealand electricity sector.
“And BlackRock said to themselves, oh 46 billion, we can do that; wouldn’t that be interesting if we helped to decarbonise an entire country?” he said.
“Because that would then provide a model for other countries around the world?
“And to me, that’s the opportunity that we’re talking about, whether it’s them or anybody else, is to say here is a definable problem that we could chuck the kitchen sink at for a while.
“So if we can solve that not just on behalf of ourselves, but for the whole world, because we are an OECD country with a comparatively wealthy, open economy, we’ve got a population the size of Los Angeles City or Sydney.
“So you go, well, you know, we could do it here first, and then that becomes transferable IP (intellectual property) for all of the other countries in the world that have larger scale and therefore more sclerosis in the system.”
Later in the day, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins took up Shaw’s theme of environmentally friendly infrastructure.
“The Government’s net debt is also amongst the lowest in the world, and again, that gives us opportunities to invest in things like infrastructure,” he said.
And he hinted that could include the controversial Lake Onslow pumped hydro project.
“If we want to move to 100% renewable electricity, then we’re going to need to make some big decisions around battery storage and how we can actually achieve that,” he said.
“We know if we want to transition to a lower carbon approach to transport, we are going to need to invest in mass transit, and that will include light rail in our biggest cities.
“And we also know as a country that there is no getting away from the fact that we have a massive challenge with our water infrastructure ahead of us, and we’re going to need to invest heavily in that in the coming decade.”
But inevitably, when politicians show up to speak to a business audience before an election, the debate turns to tax.
And so it did yesterday with a series of sharp exchanges between Finance Minister Grant Robertson and National’s Finance spokesperson, Nicola Willis.
Unsurprisingly, two topics dominated their debate: inflation and tax.
Robertson managed to link the two, saying that National’s recently announced “Backpocket Boost” programme would be inflationary.
(The argument is that because much of the money is going to lower-income families who spend every last dollar, the tax cuts will straightaway feed through into increased demand.)
Willis blamed what she called Robertson’s excessive spending for the current inflation.
“We want to be more moderate than Labor has been because workers tell us that there is no use getting a pay rise if the next day all the prices at the supermarket are higher as a result,” she said.
“So, what people want to see is the cost of living reduced and their real incomes increased.
“And that is what National’s committed to.”
Robertson wasn’t going to accept that.
“I think National’s provided for four new taxes in the last few weeks and a convoluted way of trying to pay for tax cuts that they know are not affordable,” he said.
“One of those is the so-called foreign buyer tax, which actually has the potential to capture New Zealand residents who are offshore for more than a year if they’re going to try and treat people fairly.”
Moderator Ryan Bridge asked Willis whether she had brought the workings of the foreign buyers’ tax with her.
“The best sign that our tax plan has landed is that instead of arguing the principle of whether or not New Zealanders are being overtaxed, whether or not, in fact, the government should constrain its spending, we are having an argument about Labor’s interpretation of a tax,” she said and was then interrupted by Robertson who said: “Not our interpretation.”
That was reference to the string of academics and tax layers who have tried to point out the inconsistencies in National’s various explanations of how its foreign buyer tax might be structured.
“Can I be clear? “continued Willis.
“The people who have practically worked with the implementation of tax treaties, not the academics that people have actually had to implement them, are 100% confident we can do this.”
Later in the day, the Prime Minister was not so sure about that.
“I think we need to take a more responsible approach because our reputation as a country that adheres to the international rules-based system is critical for our international businesses,” he said.
“And if we start taking the approach that says, well, we can do things that are in breach of our international obligations on the basis that no one’s actually going to really do anything about that, actually that’s going to have quite a significant impact on our standing internationally, and it will be bad for business.
“So I think making sure that the commitments that we make as political parties going into an election campaign stack up against the international obligations we have as a country is incredibly important to our ongoing economic prosperity and success.”
In his 20-minute address to the conference, National Leader Christopher Luxon avoided the foreign buyer tax issue altogether, perhaps a reflection about how the criticism of it has been almost continuous since it was announced.
Instead, he treated attendees to his basic “Get New Zealand Back on Track” stump speech.
It is perhaps a reflection of the stalemate that seems to be developing between the country’s two main parties that yesterday’s conference highlights came from ACT and the Greens.