Looking on the bright side
While Kiwis “flock” to Australia chasing higher wages and better weather, Tim Pankhurst says perhaps we should be concentrating on why New Zealand is such a good place to be.
In November 1976 – when ABBA was top o’ the pops, Ford Zephyrs were the hoons’ choice and Muldoon was Prime Minister – a typical young Wellington couple packed their cords and headed to Australia.
They were in the first wave of a flood, soon joined by almost their entire group of friends.
Between that year and 1982, 100,000 Kiwis settled across the Tasman. By mid 2010, that number had soared to an estimated 566,815 – 14 per cent on top of our four million still at home.
In the mid 1970s Australia offered opportunity, more money, sunshine, better beer and an escape from the greyness of a hidebound outpost of England slowly awakening to a unique Pacific flavour.
Those economic factors and the weather still apply, although we have discovered wine and a vibrant Wellington has become Lonely Planet’s coolest little capital.
In the mid 1980s, the couple swam against the still strong tide and returned home with a newborn. But none of their compatriots did.
They are widely scattered, Aussies now. One is a multimillionaire property developer on the Gold Coast, another an Outback mechanic, one sells cars and drinks too much, another is a Perth-based project manager on oil rigs.
For the Wellington couple, the dream did deliver.
He went from earning a measly 80 bucks a week learning his craft on a suburban newspaper chain, covering potholes and progressive association AGMs, to half as much again plus expenses on Australia’s biggest circulating newspaper, the Melbourne Sun. That was thanks to an Invercargill-born chief of staff, Neddy Livingstone, who hired pretty much any Kiwi who walked in the door, however green.
She put 10c in a bulky red public phone in a café, rang a city hospital and was promptly hired as chief cardiology technician in the then infant field of echo imaging. Melbourne was marvellous then.
Now the couple visits often and revels in friends and the parks and markets and trams, but the relentless traffic, the endless urban sprawl, astronomical real estate prices and pressured jobs do not appeal.
One of those 1970s refugees recently made a wistful visit and took a lot of interest in local property prices. He complained of pre-dawn ramp rage among testy boaties queued up on an eight-lane launch ramp in Western Australia. The mood was not improved by the slim fishing prospects in over exploited waters.
He wants to return but is nervous about overcoming 30 years’ absence.
Maybe if we stopped beating ourselves up about our supposed poor economic performance and were happy to wear black but not let it darken our souls, more expats would be keen to return home.
If we were less inclined to gloominess, fewer might abandon ship in an oft elusive search for a better life.
Wellington was a dreary place until its weather beaten inhabitants decided to be positive about living there. There are shades of that in our wider attitudes to New Ziland, as our Prime Minister calls it.
God knows how Southland inhabitants put up with the sniggering from the rest of the country whenever Invercargill is mentioned. Maybe they’re too busy getting on with producing a disproportionate amount of the country’s wealth.
Palmerston North cops it too. And Hamilton. We are the masters at putting ourselves down, possibly top of the OECD in that regard.
Wealth and productivity are not the only significant measures. This country, so practiced at peering into a half empty glass, has much to be thankful for and could use some other comparisons.
America is a vibrant and diverse country, the world’s richest and most powerful. It is also debt-ridden, mean and vengeful, and 44 million of its citizens live below the poverty line. That is why so many thousands live on the streets and panhandling is rife.
Australia’s wealth is built on its mining and a two-tier economy is emerging, with the retail and manufacturing sectors struggling. The “lucky country” has a huge vested interest in continuing stability in China, their major market.
Autocratic government and human rights repression are good for business.
Any upheaval in China and disruption of its extraordinary growth will have a profound impact on Australia.
In Europe the Euro is sinking, Greece and now Italy are joining the porcine basket cases and Britain is on hard times.
Yes, of course we can and must do better; look beyond the boat, Beemer and beach house (although that looks pretty good to most of us) to nurture our innovators and build our prosperity, if only to keep the boomers in style. But simple economic rankings do not do
justice to our quality of life. This is a fair, tolerant country where we still care for our fellow citizens – witness the remarkable outpouring of support for a shattered Christchurch. It is hard to get rich – at least by legal means – but you do not have to step over the homeless and beat off beggars in the streets and no one starves.
The fishing is still pretty good too.
Tim Pankhurst is chief executive of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association.
Originally published in IN-Business March/April 2012