There was a thoughtful piece by Simon Upton in today’s Dominion Post (actually, all Upton’s pieces are thoughtful) on the Kiwi Diaspora. He estimated that as many as one million New Zealanders now live abroad, a point the National Party hammered during the election campaign as proof of New Zealand’s economic decline. I read somewhere recently that only Ireland has a greater proportion of its population living elsewhere.
“Read the Christmas letters of almost any middle-class New Zealand family,” Upton wrote, “and the exploits of their emigrant children will be proudly recounted.” His column would have resonated with many New Zealand parents who are now resigned to their offspring living overseas, and whose pride in their children’s achievements is offset by anxiety about the possibility of them never coming back.
In my own case, I have a son in Australia and another in California. I would love them both to be in New Zealand but I can’t see any chance of it happening in the foreseeable future. (Fortunately I have two daughters still in Wellington to look after their father as he descends gently into senility, a process that both would argue is already well advanced).
I look around my whanau and see similar situations elsewhere. Two of my older brother’s three daughters are in Melbourne. One of my nephews is on an extended trip abroad and when he met up with my son in California, both agreed there was little to attract them back to Enzed.
On my wife’s side of the family, two more nephews are overseas – one in Switzerland, where he has family connections, and the other in England, where he and his wife revel in the travel opportunities presented by close proximity to Europe.
We used to reassure ourselves that this was just a phase all young New Zealanders went through – their OE – but that once they were ready to settle down and raise a family, they would be lured home. Now we’re not so sure. As Upton put it: “To date we have comforted ourselves with the (perfectly valid) observation that young people need to get out and experience the world; and that they will return eventually, bringing with them experience and global fluency that are vital if we are to have any hope of keeping up with the world’s leaders. The only trouble is that they don’t tend to return in sufficient numbers and we don’t keep abreast with leading-edge economies.”
The ramifications don’t bear thinking about. As Upton says, “Each of these bright young emigrants represents lost intellectual horsepower to the government, business and community.” The bleak implication is that the ones left behind will be those who are too old, too lazy, too unskilled or too lacking in ambition to make it in the competitive economies overseas.
That’s an unduly pessimistic assumption, of course, because many skilled and talented young New Zealanders (I dislike that term “Kiwis”) do choose to stay put or return home. Yet the fact remains that we’re bleeding. Recent figures show that more than 47,000 people left New Zealand for Australia on a permanent or long-term basis in the year ended September – hardly surprising when pay rates across the Tasman are estimated as being between 25 and 40 percent higher. Many of those emigrants were skilled workers, exacerbating a skills shortage that is steadily gnawing away at the productive base of the New Zealand economy.
Unless I misread him, Upton seemed resigned to the inevitability of this process continuing, citing New Zealand’s isolation and small population base. “A big population confers a depth and variety of skills, anonymity and constant competitive learning that will always be denied a very isolated community. The expats I run across … have found their niche in societies that offer more in human terms than ours ever can.” But I don’t think we can afford to be so fatalistic, which is why the new government must follow through on its election rhetoric and work at building an economy that will offer more to our best and brightest.
On this note, it was interesting to read former BNZ chairman Kerry McDonald’s scathing comments – also in today’s Dom Post – about Labour’s management of the economy during the past nine years. McDonald described it as an “absolute disaster”.
He told James Weir, the Dom Post’s business editor, that the past decade of growth was a chance to address productivity and international competitiveness, encourage a strong export sector and restructure the tax system. “Instead we went in the other direction and grew the state sector, increased taxes on businesses and introduced myriad new regulations. We absolutely knocked the stuffing out of the private sector.”
This can’t simply be dismissed as ideological grumbling. McDonald is a former head of the Institute of Economic Research and a respected economist. His comments pinpoint the tragic wasted opportunities of the Labour years – and also reveal how clever Labour propagandists were in convincing people that the economy was roaring along like a freight train when in fact the current account deficit was climbing to an unsustainable level and the export sector, on which New Zealand ultimately depends, was falling woefully short of its potential.