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Opinion: effective transport links and Ministerial travel

By Charles Finny, Chief Executive of the Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce

I was intending to write some words on Wellington’s international linkages, but can’t resist commenting on the decisions that Government announced last week on Transmission Gully and the rest of the Levin to Wellington Airport Road of National Significance.

Essentially Government has delivered on everything we in the business community have been asking for. This is great news for Wellington. Many of the most obvious productivity and growth blockages will have been removed once the final parts of last week’s package are completed. Wellington will, as a result, be an even more competitive city than we are today, and consequently Wellington will be an even more appealing place to do business.

Unfortunately the infrastructure equation doesn’t stop at roads. We need to keep our investment in better public transport continuing, we need to remain competitive in the broadband space, and we should not be overlooking the port and airport, and in particular the role that Wellington plays as a link between the North and South islands. In this regard, I am keen to ensure that the possibility of building a new port at Clifford Bay does not drop off the radar screen. I have been pleased to hear Kiwirail CEO Jim Quinn mention this issue in his public speeches. If we are looking at investments that are capable of achieving a major productivity enhancement I can’t think of anything better than investing in a project that will wipe hours off freight and passenger movements between the North and South Islands.

We have the best airport in New Zealand. Wellington serves as Air New Zealand’s domestic hub and because of this we enjoy the best range of air linkages to the whole of New Zealand. While we have great links into Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne (I remain hopeful that a Wellington – Canberra service will happen before too long also), the lack of direct flights to destinations further afield does complicate doing serious international business from Wellington. As I write this article the first flight of the Boeing 787 has just taken off from an airport in Seattle. Air New Zealand is due to take delivery of its first 787 aircraft in a few years. Qantas and other airlines in this region are also going to be buying it. Let’s hope our upgraded land transport links make Wellington’s hinterland sufficiently large to justify services to Asia and the Americas direct out of Wellington sometime in the future.

This leads into the topic I first wanted to write on – international travel by our politicians. New Zealand needs to improve its international linkages. The Government rightly sees an improved export performance as key to our closing the economic gap with Australia and I fully support the Government’s goal of increasing our export to GDP ratio to 40%. To achieve this goal exports are going to have to grow in real terms by 2.7 times from $57 billion to $150 billion. This is a very ambitious goal.

This goal is not achievable without Government and the export community working closely together. It can’t be achieved without Government negotiators opening new market opportunities, and protecting existing access from those seeking to impose restrictions on our trade. Much of this work is done by officials, but at the end of the day action by Ministers and the Prime Minister is crucial to achieving our goals. And realistically Ministers from a wide range of portfolios other than Foreign Affairs and Trade have a role to play – education, immigration, tourism, commerce, economic development etc are all important trade related portfolios. Our ability to influence other Governments depends upon the personal relationships that have been developed over many years between our political leaders, business leaders and public servants with their counterparts offshore. It is essential that our Ministers in a wide range of portfolios are active offshore establishing the links with counterparts that are so essential. From time to time we do get visitors from offshore, and we do sometimes host international meetings, but the reality is we are going to have to travel more to our overseas markets than Ministers from other countries are going to travel to see us.

I see, in all our key markets, Ministers from our competitor countries visiting far more regularly than our Ministers are visiting them. We need to do something about this. Unfortunately treatment of Ministerial travel in the media worries me. Much of the coverage is narrow and frankly small minded. I don’t see views in the European, US, Canadian, Chilean or Australian press. Why is Ministerial travel seen as a perk here, whereas others rightly see it as an essential part of the job? Given the importance of our trade to our economic future it is essential that we work just as hard, if not harder than our competitors.

In saying this I agree that in recent years there have been examples of poor quality, or questionable Ministerial travel. Unless there is a strong business case for it, a trip that coincides with a major sporting or cultural event does raise legitimate questions over the real reason behind a trip. And I also wonder why Ministerial partners should be funded for overseas travel when business people, journalists, academics and public servants seem to survive a few days or weeks of separation perfectly well? But let’s not forget that most Ministerial and Parliamentary travel is essential and let’s keep the focus on it in perspective. It worries me enormously to find Ministers turning down travel requests because there is a perception out there that there are more votes to be won by appearing frugal. We need to invest in our economic future and Ministerial travel is part of that equation.

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