Friday, 01 May 2020 14:00

Agility and innovation

Written by  Peter Burke
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

OPINION: Like her or not, Ardern has gained much reputational capital for NZ and she is now regarded as one of the most highly respected leaders in world politics.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has rightly described the battle against COVID-19 as a marathon – but the problem is that no one in the world knows the distance of this marathon and not everyone is running the same course to the supposed finish line. I once remember being told that all we have in life is the ‘everlasting present’ and that is so true today.

Our PM is rightly been lauded internationally for her leadership in handling of COVID-19 so far: she is someone that others look up to and respect and that is pretty special. But while we might be successful in controlling the virus in NZ, our future as a food exporter depends on how the rest of the world manages the pandemic so they can buy our produce.

In the short term, the processing and marketing teams from all our primary sector businesses have shown great agility and innovation in moving product around to markets which are accessible at any given time and which are prepared to pay a reasonable price for our products. It is said that we have the advantage that, despite the pandemic the world has to eat and that’s true – but at what price?....and  maybe prices will drop, but so far this year things are looking pretty good even on this front.

Apart from COVID-19, the greatest threat to NZ is trade protectionism. The fear that some nations will hunker down and try to be more self-sufficient in food production – protectionism is the dinosaur we are up against. Will nations resort to a policy of ‘splendid isolation’ and walk away from making alliances and trade deals? History tells us that the Great Depression of the 1930’s was made worse and prolonged by nations doing just that - indulging in protectionist policies. NZ needs more than just access to markets, it needs all nations to trade. It all sounds so simple – some would risk calling it common sense. 

Given that scenario, NZ is fortunate that in MFAT, NZTE, MPI and other agencies it has smart dedicated people working with our politicians and businesses to ensure that amidst the turmoil of COVID-19, work on shoring up the rules based system of trade is maintained. It is vital for NZ that the power of the WTO is preserved, that free trade agreements (FTAs) continue to be signed. That globally our diplomats continue to create ‘signature ready’ agreements that preserve trade flows and counsel countries against moving into splendid isolationist protectionism.

While understandably many people struggle to see anything positive in such turbulent times, perhaps this is the time for them to turn their heads in the direction of the NZ agri sector. Every day I see positive signs emerging, a willingness to collaborate and innovate in ways that have never existed before – a determination to beat the odds and come up winners (not Trumps). Yes, the world will never be the same and for many of us that is hard to accept. But doing things differently and doing different jobs may still be OK. 

NZ has a proud history of leadership internationally. It has long been respected for developing smart solutions and applying a healthy dash of pragmatism to major problems resulting in great global outcomes. 

The handling of COVID-19 by Jacinda Ardern and the teams of dedicated officials and business people has added to that legacy. Like her or not, Ardern has gained much reputational capital for NZ and she is now regarded as one of the most highly respected leaders in world politics. This will be of great assistance when it comes to negotiating those difficult trade deals because it is much harder to argue with someone of such Mana. Through the course of this marathon may this continue.

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