A Brief History of the Future
Shoal Bay Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 908704 77 1
Aconversation with Mike Moore is like an adventure ride at a theme park. You’re bucked and rolled and threatened and sidetracked and at the end of it all left breathless, with head shaking and mind full. A frequent trawler of Parliament’s Press Gallery corridor, Moore is a politician thinking. In a healthy democracy that shouldn’t be so unusual, but it is.
Modern politics discourages original thought. MPs rely on others to come up with policy and PR advisors to tell them what it means. Consultants are paid big money to contract all thought into small, easily digestible chunks. It’s the political equivalent of “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” Ask ten Government MPs what any policy means and nine will inevitably use the same phrases to describe it. Only don’t press them too hard: “That’s … ah … um … so-and-so’s baby, really.”
In another context this would be seen as brainwashing. In modern politics it’s being “disciplined” and “selling the message”. And it’s occurring internationally. One of Tony Blair’s greatest coups in his winning campaign was helping his troops NOT to think for themselves. All Labour candidates carried bleepers on which single sentence “messages of the day” were transmitted to ensure all red ribbon campaigners were selling the same product to voters nationwide.
We should be thankful that Mike Moore, at least, is incapable of reducing his message to a single sentence. It’s why he so regularly writes books. And like his conversations they’re a free-fall of ideas and facts, laced together with self-justifications (he is after all a politician), slap-downs and his own brand of optimism.
A Brief History of the Future is an easy-to-read call for New Zealand to embrace globalisation, to achieve independence through interdependence. Moore has long been an internationalist. As Trade Minister he negotiated New Zealand’s way in the GATT, always argued against protectionism and remains a firm voice in Parliament against those who (for electoral favour) rail against foreigners and their money coming here:
I saw my job as Trade Minister as a chance to do my patriotic duty. I was working for jobs in New Zealand and I saw that pulling down New Zealand’s Berlin Wall of import controls would also help transfer wealth … Now that position is more and more portrayed as a betrayal of New Zealand. From hero to traitor in a decade!
Ignoring the overstatement (politicians are notoriously sensitive to how history will remember them), Moore is right. For more than a decade successive governments have removed tariffs, signed international free-trade agreements and championed the benefits of the global market and yet left voters unconvinced.
Blame joblessness. Cutting tariffs on cars killed the local car assembly industry. Likewise when cheap Chinese and Fijian clothing flooded the market, local clothing factories could no longer compete. Their out-of-work employees quickly became a symbol of what the policy really meant. Moore concedes free trade costs jobs. But he believes it creates jobs too – only in ones and twos and no one notices.
But while New Zealand has moved faster than others to remove tariffs, many of our exports still face impossible trading barriers. Before the real economic benefit Moore and his ilk promise is felt here, the rest of the world must catch up. Frankly that’s still hypothetical because removing tariffs is not a vote-catcher anywhere. The US Congress has still not approved the removal of all tariffs by 2010 – even though Clinton signed up to that at Apec in 1995.
Yet the tide of interdependence has already come in. The internet recognises no geographical border. And these days, neither do consumers. Just stand outside the school gates. The Nike shoes, the Sony walkmans, the Coke cans, the Big Macs. Try telling a thirteen-year-old to “Buy New Zealand Made”. Says Moore:
I’ve heard it said that a New Zealander is someone who works for IBM, drives a Japanese car … wears an Italian suit made in Singapore of Australian wool, checks his Swiss watch … picks up his Korean-made cellphone and makes a call on an American-owned telecommunication company to complain to his MP about overseas ownership.
We want the benefits of the new global market but we reserve the right to whinge about it. Well, unless we like adopting the King Canute position, we’d be better off working out how the new global reality might work for us rather than against us. According to Moore, it is information technology that underpins the new borderless frontier. Singapore, France, Italy, Germany, England and Finland all have strategies to make sure children are not only literate but information-technology-literate. In Singapore that means a computer in every home, school and workplace within 15 years. Compare that with New Zealand’s latest education goal – simply making sure nine-year-olds can read. If the new millennium only offers a future to our children if they have skills, as Moore argues, it seems almost criminal that the most pressing educational issue in this country is how we pay teachers.
In a sense, identifying our short-sightedness is Moore’s greatest skill. In arguing for debate on globalisation, he is also calling for debate about sovereignty – that rather vague and troublesome concept. In an age where national borders become meaningless, he says, the idea of nationhood becomes, ironically, more important. But that nationhood is defined by culture rather than lines on a map.
It is a challenging idea, particularly at this time of cross-cultural tension. The reassertion of Maoritanga has left Pakeha New Zealand struggling to come up with something to match it. Moore is already on to his next book on this very theme. New Zealand is not well-equipped for the debate. Beyond the routine of rhetoric there is scant evidence of any genuine contest of ideas. And while as consumers we have embraced the labels and gadgets, as a community we have failed to question what it all means and where it will take us. Mike Moore’s latest offering is a good starting-point.
Linda Clark is Political Editor for One Network News.