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Is New Zealand the “greatest nation on Earth”?

I’ve been feeling suspiciously positive of late. Notwithstanding grumbling about “transport priorities this” and “government policies that”, I am generally optimistic about New Zealand in general, and Auckland in particular.

More specifically, several of my recent posts on this blog have attempted to highlight (with varying degrees of success) the close links between the success of urban and rural parts of NZ. The parochial urban/rural divide is, I think, too simplistic: New Zealand would be much the worse without Auckland, and vice versa. Both need each other.

Indeed one of the reasons I love living in Auckland is that from there I can access so many beautiful and remote places with relative ease, as illustrated below (chocolate fish prize for anyone who guesses the location). In short I’m hoping we can start to get over the urban/rural divide and instead start appreciating the contribution that both make to NZ’s quality of life.

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The need for a more inclusive and less parochial perspective was recently highlighted to me by a blog post in the U.S. titled “The Greatest Nation on Earth Isn’t Us”. The blog post starts with the following extract from a T.V. show, where a university student earnestly asks a couple of pundits “why America is the greatest nation in the world.”

To which the subsequent response is (after some heated rhetoric and a few interesting statistics) “there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that America is the number one country in the world … America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.” Here’s the full video http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=16K6m3Ua2nw

The subsequent blog post then goes on to list several reasons why the author considers New Zealand, rather than the U.S., to be the greatest nation in the world, namely:

  1. Freedom – “The latest international index of 123 countries released by the Fraser Institute, Canada’s leading public policy think-tank, and Germany’s Liberales Institut, ranked New Zealand number one for offering the highest level of freedom worldwide … The survey measured the degree to which people are free to enjoy classic civil liberties – freedom of speech, religion, individual economic choice, and association and assembly – in each country surveyed, as well as indicators of crime and violence, freedom of movement, legal discrimination against homosexuals, and women’s freedoms.”
  2. Business – “So, who did top the list for the Best Countries for Business? New Zealand. New Zealand can boast a transparent and stable business climate that encourages entrepreneurship. New Zealand is the smallest economy in the top 10 at $162 billion, but it ranks first in personal freedom and investor protection, as well as a lack of red tape and corruption.”
  3. Education – “That would be New Zealand again, first in the world on the basis of performance in three areas: access to education, quality of education and human capital … According to the QS World University Rankings, two of New Zealand’s universities – Auckland and Otago – rank in the top 200 of the 700 best universities in the world, and Auckland in the top 100 (83rd and 133rd respectively). That’s 25% compared to the United State’s 2.06%. All eight universities rank in the top 500, with Auckland University of Technology appearing on the list for the first time this year.”
  4. AucklandAuckland is ranked the third best city out of the top five for quality of living, after Vienna and Zurich, nothing in the United States making the list at all.

Reading the blog post and the subsequent comments did make me feel humble – the kind of feeling that you get when you realise how good something was only after looking at an old photo of the event. Or when you receive a lovely letter from a reader of this blog.

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that I’m not a raging patriot at all – in fact I always feel slightly uncomfortable when confronted with overly patriotic expressions. For this reason I much prefer the respectful but fun celebrations of national identified observed in countries like the Netherlands (Queens Day) and Norway to the pomp and puffery of more Anglo-Saxon countries.

But on the other hand I must say that I really like New Zealand. From the bustling diversity of Auckland, to the rolling green suburbs and blue waters of Dunedin, to the stunning seaside villages of Northland. I’m not sure whether all these places means NZ can lay claim to being the “greatest” – and frankly I don’t care – but it does mean, I think, NZ is a fairly “great” place to be right now. And that we should get on with working hard to make it even better.

At this point I started to see past my suspiciously positive feelings and start to wonder what I would change about New Zealand if I could? Well, “the first step in solving any problem is recognising there is [at least] one”. In that spirit I would just like to highlight a few areas where NZ might improve:

  • Child poverty – we should all be concerned about the cycle of child poverty that seems to becoming embedded in our society. I think some big and bold interventionist policies are clearly required.
  • Livability of our cities – as discussed at length in this blog, cities are not simply “big towns”; they are very complex beasts that demand targeted policies and investment and a focus on amenity.
  • Taxation - I think we need to shift our tax base from labour (income tax) to capital (CGT, land taxes etc). Reductions in company tax would also help, I think, because company tax is primarily a tax on employment/innovation.

Ultimately I think that our success, or otherwise, on these issues amongst others will be determined by reductions in our rates of emigration and/or increasing numbers of expatriates returning home. While some level of emigration is natural and indeed beneficial, the levels NZ currently supports suggests that too many people are being “pushed” rather than “pulled”.

All this should not stop us from reveling in being nominated as the “greatest nation on Earth”, if only by a relatively obscure blog. It’s just food for thought as you all get your feet back under the desk at work and start gearing up for a productive 2013. A kiwi form of thanksgiving if you like; bless.

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