Friday 24 July 2009

Bored of the "Mood"

"Control, Smithers, control. It's the only thing worth having!": But why should the "mood of the boardroom" count for more than the mood of the common-room, the smoko-room, or the staff-room?

IT’S the sub-text of the "Mood of the Boardroom" exercise that rankles most. The idea that a poll conducted of businessmen, by businessmen and for businessmen can somehow reveal the nation’s forward path. Even if New Zealand’s business leaders were famed throughout the world for the length of their education, the breadth of their social and scientific interest, and the depth of their cultural intelligence, the inherent conceptual narrowness of the commercial mindset would still rule them out as useful guides to national regeneration.

Sadly, the New Zealand business class possesses only the last of the attributes mentioned above. Indeed, when it comes to narrowness of vision it has few serious rivals.

With the honourable exception of Sir Robert Jones, and a handful of other cultured entrepreneurs, the Kiwi businessman has nothing but contempt for the liberally educated individual. Practical skills, rather than critical or creative thinking, is what he prizes most highly, and his reflexive anti-intellectualism may be relied upon to keep New Zealand’s productivity levels firmly at the bottom of OECD rankings (no matter how many reassuring noises he may offer to Business NZ’s pollsters.)

As the political wing of the business community, the National/Act condominium naturally mimics its masters’ failings with puppy-like enthusiasm. Dimly aware that a well-educated population is an indispensable pre-requisite for sustained economic growth, it has proudly squeezed out a policy of "national standards" and "national testing". No matter that expert opinion is unanimous in its condemnation of the policy, or that overseas experience has only grim tales to tell about the disastrous educational consequences of "teaching to the test" regimes, National’s education minister, Anne Tolley, backed by her Prime Minister, John Key, is absolutely determined to press ahead.

Addressing a Wellington business breakfast on Wednesday, 15 July, Key declared:

"The Government wants to introduce National Standards constructively, in a cooperative spirit ….. But there should be no doubt about the Government’s commitment to National Standards. Parents want them, this Government is going to deliver them, and I am backing the Minister of Education 100 percent."

If the PM’s words have a certain Churchillian ring to them, that’s because they really are a declaration of war on the education sector.

The introduction of the government’s "national standards" regime will only take place over the prostrate bodies of the powerful education unions, whose professional educators have quite rightly identified the government’s plans as a direct threat to the nation’s children. Naturally, the prospect of full-scale war with the trade unions is something from which neither the nation’s business leaders, nor their political factotums, have the slightest intention of resiling. Never mind the disruption, the trashing of professional expertise, or the lingering legacy of bitterness and mistrust: in education – as in all other things – business knows best.

This same wantonly destructive approach to all matters intellectual, critical and professional is reflected in the National Government’s decision to not only cancel the previous government’s dramatic expansion of research and development funding, but to proceed from the assumption that, in the PM’s own words: "Universities and Crown Research Institutes need to be more responsive to the needs of firms."

Not to the needs of scientists and their research teams, you will note, but to the needs of "firms". As if any New Zealand "firm" has ever possessed the wit to foresee the next great conceptual breakthrough, or anticipated the sort of scientific insight that flows only from the ability to conduct pure research free from the "insinuating tutelage of intelligent authority, and pressure weighted with gold." (Although, for most scientists, domination by "intelligent" authority would be considered a major advance!)

"Domination" is, of course, the central organising principle around which all such "Mood of the Boardroom" exercises revolve. Ever since the mid-1980s, when Treasury’s revolutionaries staged their bureaucratic coup d’├ętat on behalf of a business community too lacklustre to do it for themselves, the necessary fiction of the omniscient Kiwi businessman has lain at the heart of the neo-liberal regime.

And that is the terrible irony of the "Rogernomics Revolution": that New Zealand’s historical shift towards the free market, master-minded and unleashed by a cabal of highly-educated civil servants, should be predicated on the notion that the very people who made the change possible, along with the social-democratic society which produced them, must, of necessity, be among its first sacrificial victims. Like the Soviet regime its adherents purport to despise, the neo-liberal state is doomed to moral and intellectual disintegration. It may have been started by men of brilliance, but its natural progeny will always be nasty, brutish, and short on talent.

Who, then, could be surprised to discover that 95 percent of the nation’s CEO’s identified the civil service as the prime target for government retrenchment? The experts, the specialists, the possessors of professional and scientific knowledge: what possible purpose could they serve in a society such as ours? The doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers who daily confront the consequences of a society driven by greed and fear: what remotely useful service could they render their fellow citizens?

It is this extraordinary conceit that makes the "Mood of the Boardroom" exercise so offensive: that the sellers of farm implements and telephone connections; book-keepers, cow-cockies and money-lenders; men and women who will never agree on anything more uplifting than that government expenditure – and hence their taxes – should be constantly and savagely reduced; should be turned to for sensible and disinterested advice by the rest of the population.

One day New Zealanders will recall that the era of their nation’s history during which its citizens experienced their most sustained period of economic, social and cultural uplift, was the era when the "mood of the boardroom" counted for no more than the mood of the common-room, the smoko-room, or the staff-room. An era when the fiction of the omniscient businessman was simply unequal to the population’s memory of the squalor, deprivation and injustice that constituted its real-world legacy.

Perhaps the current world-wide recession – the worst in 80 years – will supply a new generation of New Zealanders with a similar store of prophylactic memories, and they will come to understand, as their grandparents did, that, in a democracy, it’s not the "mood of the boardroom" that counts – but the mood of the people.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 23 July 2009. 


Tom Semmens said...

All the "mood of the boardroom" does is show us that in the opinion of the true believers in the Vanguard Party, the revolution must be perpetual.

Anonymous said...

The really startling thing about the 'Mood of the Boardroom' exercise is the total absence of imagination and innovation about solutions to our problems, other than resort to lowering taxes and cutting government expenditure. The same thing struck me about the Bill English's first budget; pedestrian, aimed at placating the same genius rating agencies that had a major hand in bringing us the global financial crisis - for which they have yet to fully atone - and above all lacking in ambition. And the trifecta of predictable ordinariness has been completed this week by the head of Treasury; reduce the size of the public service; cut, slash and burn. It is a pattern with which we are now only too familiar; traduce the reputation of the public service, stimulate the public's apetite for lower taxes, privilege the point of view of the business community, whom you rightly point out have a less than stellar record, and enfeeble state agencies that have the ability to help and enable those without capital resources to live fulfilled lives relieved of the misery of inequality. And, while you're at it, and entirely consistently, put an end to any pesky research that might find out why women aren't being paid the same as men for work of equal value because we can't really afford pay people equitably in our current economic situation. But, most importantly, re-introduce imperial titles so that those of us without capital resources can bend our knees and doff our caps at the great and the good bearing a title that is foreign and redolent of a discredited and ugly colonial system premised on ruthless exploitation. The absence of any innovative solutions from the 'Mood of the Boardroom' suggests one conclusion; the NZ business community is simply not capable of generating realistic and practical solutions other than the same single note of lower taxes and a smaller state. Haven't we heard this before? And more than once? Isn't it time we moved on from this particular bum-in-a-bag (ie cul-de-sac)?

Nick said...


As a denizen of management meetings and board meetings for the last two decades I can assure you that we really do focus on nothing more than opportunities to maximise profits and reduce costs. If there is a free lunch or the opportunity to bluebird at anothers expense we grab it with both hands and not so much as a thank you, quick smart. So yes, tax cuts, avoiding compliance, and any other way to plunder the public domain is on our radar.

In summary you are on the money to use our terminology. To look to business for anything other than what we do, or for vision is a futile exercise. We have little to teach you but venality. Its a bit like asking the addict to run the rehab centre. Sad I know, back to the ledger book. So Dickensian.