Facing Big Issues: Brian Lynch Reports on a Conference on 'The Major Economic and Foreign Policy Issues Facing New Zealand, 2012-2017'

Article excerpt

On the eve of the 2011 New Zealand general election it was appropriate for NZIIA to host an opportunity for a serious public discussion of the scale and complexity of the global trends impacting on New Zealand's well-being or with capacity to do so. Given the volatility of the international landscape, the occasion could be used to ask: what scope and means might there be for New Zealand to influence the attitudes and behaviour of others beyond our borders, on issues that truly matter to the country? Recognising that in the main New Zealand had only soft power resources available to it to exert such influence.

As had been the experience with a similar function immediately after the 2005 general election, this event was well supported. It attracted an audience of around 150, which remained largely intact through the day. There was also broad-based sponsorship from private and public sector sources. That backing has enabled publication of a permanent record of the proceedings.

The analysis and comment did not purport to be the international policy agenda which New Zealand civil society recommended to the new government. It would have been a reach too far to have tried to muster that level of accord among the diversity of views represented on the agenda of big issues offered for discussion.

Realistic level

It was an ambitious undertaking in a single-day event to seek to do justice to the range and diversity of the major external challenges that New Zealand is likely to confront over the next five years. In designing the day's programme we had to accept that it would have been asking too much to try to cover all the possible subject matter and scenarios the country could face between now and 2017.

Therefore, of necessity the programme was selective. Some items had to be omitted that proponents could argue were acutely pressing and should have pushed themselves onto the agenda. By and large, careful time management from the moderators of the five sessions gave space for expressions of opinion on topics that were missing or were too lightly covered for everyone's liking. In that sense, full advantage was taken of the opportunity for dialogue.

Acknowledging the practical realities imposed by a day-long programme did not lower the level of ambition there was for the conference. The moderators and presenters who willingly made themselves available were acknowledged experts in their respective fields. Many of them were high profile, respected, well-

informed, and eloquent advocates of particular policy options. Not unexpectedly, there were instances where they brought a perspective that was different from the approach that underpinned what is currently preferred policy. This helped stimulate reasoned, relevant and robust debate.

Programme format

We departed from the agenda usually followed when a stocktake of a country's network of external engagements is carried out. That more familiar schedule would have had a heavy emphasis on prominent bilateral or regional points of focus. In New Zealand's case that focus would give centre-stage to our involvement with, say, Australia, the Americas, Europe, NorthSouth and South-east Asia, and the Pacific. Tempting though it was to adhere to that established formula, on this occasion we elected instead to highlight the overarching importance of five major global themes, all of which, indisputably, are of paramount relevance to New Zealand.

That does not mean the bilateral and regional implications were ignored in the programme. For example, consider the broad rubric of 'The Global Commons' that absorbed the first session. It would be hard in a New Zealand setting to have a meaningful discussion of issues around topics such as climate change, development assistance, maritime policy and people movement without addressing where and how they impact on New Zealand's relations with Australia and our Pacific neighbourhood. …