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Productivity = applying our taonga to deliver wellbeing

2 March 2021
In this note the new Chair of the Commission, Dr Ganesh Nana, introduces himself and some of his thoughts and perspectives on the various challenges he sees facing 21st century Aotearoa.

 

E ngā iwi, e ngā mana, e ngā reo, rau rangatira mā, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, kia ora koutou katoa.

Ko Ganesh Nana tēnei.

I am a first-generation New Zealander, and I acknowledge Māori as tangata whenua of Aotearoa. I acknowledge and pay my respects to your tūpuna, my tūpuna, and our tūpuna who have nurtured, developed, maintained, and passed on the many taonga we enjoy here in Aotearoa.

I take up this role of Chair of the New Zealand Productivity Commission Te Kōmihana Whai Hua o Aotearoa with a mixture of thoughts and feelings. Excitement at a new challenge is probably high on the list, followed closely by a deep sense of responsibility.

In line with my core values, I view seriously our responsibility as kaitiaki of the valuable taonga (or treasures) we enjoy. As kaitiaki we are obliged to ensure they are passed on in a fit and healthy state to our mokopuna and beyond.

A primary driver in my accepting this role was a desire to foster, encourage, and reinforce the Commission’s efforts to embrace broader wellbeing in its perspectives of productivity-related matters. I see this easily fitting within the Commission’s purpose, as per its legislation, to advise Government on “… improving productivity in a way that is directed to supporting the overall well-being of New Zealanders …”.

Productivity and wellbeing must be viewed together, not separately. There are some who view wellbeing as a ‘nice to have’, suggesting we need to wait till we can afford improved wellbeing. Thankfully, such a perspective is no longer prevalent. Moreover, there is a growing realisation that the rules, structures, and institutions underpinning our economy need to take responsibility for delivering wellbeing to all.

By viewing productivity and wellbeing together we can not only ask how (and whether) improved productivity lifts wellbeing outcomes. We can (and should) also ask whether (and how) the strained and stressed wellbeing of many in Aotearoa hinders our productivity performance. For example, does impaired wellbeing, like poor quality insecure housing, impact on the productivity of businesses, organisations, and enterprises in our community?

Such an approach underlies the importance of understanding the role of productivity in delivering wellbeing. I see productivity as the way we utilise, maintain, and apply our taonga to deliver wellbeing. The economist academic in me is tempted to replace the word taonga with the word resources. However, I believe too much would be lost in translation. Referring to resources leads to a use, extract, and exploit perspective, with subsequent effort and focus to replenish or replace depleted resources. Adopting the term taonga (or treasures) emphasises the value and values inherent in these items. Given the primary recognition of their value and our values, a nurturing, protecting, and applying perspective comes to the fore.

Consequently, I need to be clearer about what I include when I use the word taonga. At the highest level, our taonga can be viewed as the four capitals within the Treasury Living Standards Framework – physical capital, human capital, natural capital, and social capital. While the first three are well defined, the components of social capital require elaboration. Within social capital I would include taonga such as Te Tiriti o Waitangi; sense of community; inclusion and access to opportunities; respect for rules; an acceptance of mutual obligations to contribute and the principle of reciprocity; acknowledgement of whakapapa; manaakitanga; and whanaungatanga.

Importantly, as for all taonga (or resources), investment of effort is required to maintain, nurture, protect and apply social capital to enable the delivery of wellbeing. That is, similar to the other three capitals, lack of investment in social capital in all its forms diminishes its ability to deliver wellbeing.

The impact of the global pandemic, its economic damage and the policy responses across the globe has led some, if not many, to question some of the foundations of economic thinking. For some, this questioning was already underway due to the many challenges prior to the onset of the pandemic.

In this context some of the global challenges are: the dislocation between asset markets and real economy indicators; the lethargic responses to climate change; entrenched inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity; the inadequacy of conventional monetary policy and the quest for new monetary tools; the rehabilitation of fiscal policy, and the role of government; and the gig economy and associated casual and insecure employment arrangements; to name but a few.

These global challenges and the accompanying questioning have accelerated the development and presentation of new perspectives. These new perspectives need to be considered and further developed within the economics community, alongside the knowledge and evidence from existing models.

While the Commission’s record of robust research and analysis, underpinned by sound evidence, will not change and remains fundamental to the Commission’s operations, the fast-changing social and economic environment will require embracing several perspectives.

Of course, not all of these challenges will come directly within the ambit of the Productivity Commission, but their presence makes our job harder. “The world has changed” may be a cliché, but it is so much truer now than ever. So, to fulfil our legislated task to “promote public understanding of productivity-related matters”, our framing of productivity needs to embrace a range of perspectives and encourage rigorous debate and discussion.

The challenges we face are broad and seem, at times, overwhelming. But our shared kaupapa of lifting the wellbeing of all New Zealanders – with our taonga uppermost in our minds – provides an enviable starting point.

I look forward to shortly receiving a new set of inquiry topics from Ministers and I welcome engagement with you, your colleagues, organisations, and communities. I am keen to together progress our kōrero on productivity in a manner appropriate for, and relevant to, the many wero facing 21st century Aotearoa.

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