23 Mar 2017

Governing for the future

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:36 pm on 23 March 2017

In the lead up to an election politicians can offer a lot of short-term, vote-winning policies.

But how do we govern with long-term goals in mind? How to we prepare society for future shocks.

Improving Intergenerational Governance.

Improving Intergenerational Governance. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Victoria University of Wellington held a symposium, Improving Intergenerational Governance, at Parliament on Thursday, to explore how societies can exercise good governance not just for today, but for the future.

The event also featured the launch of two books by Professor Jonathan Boston, from the University's School of Government.

Prof Boston has published books on public management, social policy, climate change policy, tertiary education policy and comparative government.

He told RNZ's Jesse Mulligan New Zealand has made policy with an eye on the future before.

“In the early 1990s we enacted the Fiscal Responsibility Act, so future generations were not lumbered with unreasonable levels of public debt.

“And in infrastructure we now have investment plans looking out 30 years, local government is required to plan, so there are long term benefits.”

But he says there is a lot more to be done and former Prime Minister John Key’s stance on superannuation was politically expedient but “unfortunate.”

“In my view it’s really unfortunate that the former prime minister committed himself to not making any changes to New Zealand super.”

Prof Boston says a prudent position would have been to acknowledge the future burden of an aging population and the need to fund those obligations.

“I think he would not have suffered at the polls if he had done so.”

“The current [superannuation] policy arrangements were the product of a multi-party agreement in the early 1990s, it was one of the few agreements of that kind that we’ve had - and it’s stuck.” 

He says consensus is the way forward for big, challenging future-looking policies.

“The goal should be a zero-carbon economy by the second half of the century, how do we get there? Unfortunately we haven’t got multi-party agreement on that, let alone how to get there.”

He points to water as another policy fail.

“We have failed to take the steps necessary to protect our fresh water resources and ensure they are used well, the politics of that are tricky but we have a responsibility to do better.”

So how do we act today for the benefit of those who are only just or yet to be born?

“Bear in mind some people alive today may be here for another century or more.”

Commitment devices are one way of doing that, he says.

“Requiring governments to report on long term issues, requiring them to set targets, requiring them to investigate certain issues from time to time - new and emerging risks.   

“And we need institutions to speak for future interests.”

An example of politics with head firmly in the sand is the so-called 4th Industrial revolution, Prof Boston says.

“We’re in the midst of very fundamental changes, which will have profound implications for the labour market, we’re barely talking about or thinking about that.

“We need to devote our energies to thinking about what the consequence of these sorts of things might be so we can better prepare our society for what the future might hold.” 

In the lead up to an election politicians can offer a lot of short-term, vote-winning policies.

But how do we govern with long-term goals in mind? How to we prepare society for future shocks.

Victoria University of Wellington held a symposium Improving Intergenerational Governance at Parliament on Thursday to explore how societies can exercise good governance not just for today, but for the future.

The event also featured the launch of two books by Professor Jonathan Boston, from the University's School of Government.

Prof Boston has published books on public management, social policy, climate change policy, tertiary education policy and comparative government.

He says New Zealand has made policy with an eye on the future before.

“In the early 1990s we enacted the Fiscal Responsibility Act, so future generations were not lumbered with unreasonable levels of public debt.

“And in infrastructure we now have investment plans looking out 30 years, local government is required to plan, so there are long term benefits.”

But he says there is a lot more to be done and former Prime Minister John Key’s stance on superannuation was politically expedient but “unfortunate.”

“In my view it’s really unfortunate that the former prime minister committed himself to not making any changes to New Zealand super.”

Prof Boston says a prudent position would have been to acknowledge the future burden of an aging population and the need to fund those obligations.

“I think he would not have suffered at the polls if he had done so.”

“The current [superannuation] policy arrangements were the product of a multi-party agreement in the early 1990s, it was one of the few agreements of that kind that we’ve had - and it’s stuck.” 

He says consensus is the way forward for big, challenging future-looking policies.

“The goal should be a zero-carbon economy by the second half of the century, how do we get there? Unfortunately we haven’t got multi-party agreement on that, let alone how to get there.”

He points to water as another policy fail.

“We have failed to take the steps necessary to protect our fresh water resources and ensure they are used well, the politics of that are tricky but we have a responsibility to do better.”

So how do we act today for the benefit of those who are only just or yet to be born?

“Bear in mind some people alive today may be here for another century or more.”

Commitment devices are one way of doing that, he says.

“Requiring governments to report on long term issues, requiring them to set targets, requiring them to investigate certain issues from time to time - new and emerging risks.   

“And we need institutions to speak for future interests.”

An example of politics with head firmly in the sand is the so-called 4th Industrial revolution, Prof Boston says.

“We’re in the midst of very fundamental changes, which will have profound implications for the labour market, we’re barely talking about or thinking about that.

“We need to devote our energies to thinking about what the consequence of these sorts of things might be so we can better prepare our society for what the future might hold.”