I will miss much of the election campaign, visiting the UK, but I hope a number of you intend to get out there and quiz the pollies on what they are going to do for yourselves, the IT industry and the New Zealand economy in general.
Sadly, what passes for informed media debate in New Zealand amounts to Bill English appearing on “Graham Lowe’s Barbie” and talking boxing, and there are some important issues to canvas.
One of coalition government’s first acts was abolishing the Employment Contracts Act and replacing it with the Employment Relations Act. It gave unions more rights to be recognised and appears to be leading to union membership growing again. Since few IT workers are union members its impact has been minimal in the ICT sectors, but unions like the EPMU talk about recruitment forays into this sector.
Do IT managers and their staff need protection from long hours or will union intervention get in the way of the need to complete projects swiftly and flexibly? On the other hand, can the ERA be blamed for the growing number of strikes that seem to have happened lately, even if -- teachers aside -- strikes are at historically low levels?
The coalition government has certainly taken a more interventionist stance in industry, both at regional and national level. Deputy PM Jim Anderton claims great advances with his “jobs machine”. There is now a cornucopia of subsidies, enterprise awards, training schemes, investment funds and sources of venture capital, to help drive the IT and other sectors. The Ministry of Economic Development was formed to co-ordinate these efforts, which has as an agency moved closer to a more pro-active Trade New Zealand.
Labour's first term also saw the “Knowledge Wave” conferences. Did they amount to much, or were they just feel-good flannel and talkfests? Either way, after 15 years or so of “hands off” policies, even National accepts that times have changed and maybe government does have a role in promoting and helping industry and the regions.
Other questions: Has Labour done enough and is it helping in the right way? As this column has noted, the tax breaks for business are very modest here, compared to what is offered in Australia and the UK. Are we doing enough to attract new businesses in New Zealand? Can we compete with Australia if it also offers a lower company tax rate amid other incentives? Did Labour’s income tax rise for the better paid encourage a brain drain? Or do IT-focused businesses even need handouts to establish themselves?
Has Labour the right education policies -- for example, cracking down on private training providers, who supply much of the IT sector? Or should the state have a stronger role in producing more MCSEs and BComs? Should students be left with a whopping loan, or should a so-called knowledge economy return to free tertiary education and grants? In producing the IT managers of the future, do we need to pay our teachers more and make teaching seem a valued career?
Clutching my newly minted Kiwi passport, I can also ask whether New Zealand should continue to rely on immigration to fill skill shortages or should we do more to "grow our own"? Immigration policy is moving toward helping more skilled IT workers enter New Zealand, yet this month saw fresh changes toughening the general skills category and effectively making a job offer essential for residency. Are we letting the right people in?
At present the economy seems to be ticking along nicely, but how much was due to the weak dollar and the good harvests that helped our farmers? The signs are that this won't last for long. In this year's budget Finance Minister Michael Cullen spoke of a 2% long-term economic growth rate. This is hardly enough to get us back in the first division of industrial nations. We need to do a lot better if we want better public services and infrastructure -- and tax cuts.
I won’t profess to know what the answers are, but I will keep a lookout for some while I am away.