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Is 14th the best we can do?

10 December 2019

I think most people agree that NZ is a pretty nice place to live.

We have (relatively) low rates of crime, few venomous creatures (politicians and insurance salesmen excepted), a "comfortable" standard of living and acceptable levels of health-care and welfare.

However, reports recently released place us at a lowly 14th in world rankings when it comes to "quality of life".

We're even trailing behind places such as Hong Kong (with its high population density, political issues and such) and that's probably not much to be proud of.

Surely we could do better... much better.

I believe that at one time (was it the 1950s or 1960s) New Zealand had the highest standard of living in the world, brought about mainly by the nation's exceptional performance as an exporter of primary produce.

So what's gone wrong? Why have the wheels fallen off our wagon?

To be honest, for all its strengths and benefits, New Zealand is a pretty lacklustre country from the perspective of incomes and prices.

Our average wage is low by the standards of most developed nations and our cost of living is surprisingly high. Perhaps most surprising about the cost of living in this country is the cost of food -- given that we're a massive producer of the stuff.

I've written many times about the seeming insanity of our dairy produce being cheaper to buy in a UK supermarket than it is down at Countdown or New World. This does not seem to have changed much and the real question must be "why not?"

Given that Kiwis don't earn as much as their peers in other developed nations, the higher cost of living leaves us with far less discretionary spend and also accounts for the fact that we're not a nation of savers but a nation of borrowers. Of course high levels of borrowing only make the situation worse because it means that even more of our meagre personal earnings go towards enriching the big-four banks through interest charges.

So how do we turn things around?

Is it possible to return NZ to its former glory at the top of the chart that rank countries by quality of life?

That is of course, a huge ask for a small nation like New Zealand but I believe that if we plan far enough ahead, exploit our natural advantages and maximise the opportunities that a changing world creates... we could.

"Quality of life" is far more than simply counting the number of dollars that are left over at the end of the month once bills are paid. It's about a proper work/life balance, the quality of the environment, the way society balances the needs of the many against the needs of the individual and a whole lot more.

We may never be the richest nation on earth from the perspective of money but we have so much going for us in other areas that I think we owe it to future generations to come up with some long-term plans to improve things.

Energy planning and conservation must be one of the key initiatives. Clean, renewable energy at an affordable price can go a long way towards ensuring a high quality of life and this is an area where we have some natural advantages over countries like Australia and the UK. We have tidal power, wind power and hydro that we can tap to ensure an almost limitless amount of electricity to sustain industry, homes and transport. However, we need to be thinking decades ahead in planning and building this infrastructure. Are we doing a good enough job of that right now?

Environmental issues also need urgent addressing. It's great to see that there are plans and strategies afoot to clean up our waterways, even though the real effects may not be seen for generations. However, we ought to also be planning to mitigate the negative impacts this "clean up" will have on key industries such as dairy and forestry. There's little point in creating pristine waterways if we then all have to go and wash our clothes on a river-bank using rocks and a board because the country can't export enough to pay its way in the world.

One thing I noticed recently when looking back to the first part of the 20th century in New Zealand is that a lot of work was done in building critical infrastructure for the future. At least part of NZ's prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s could be attributed to the fact that for decades beforehand, governments had invested heavily in key infrastructure components such as dams, roads, housing and such. This meant that these resources were there and ready when they were needed. That kind of attitude towards securing NZ's future seems to have waned somewhat in recent times -- with few governments being prepared to think beyond their guaranteed 3-year tenure on the treasury's resources.

What do readers think?

Ought we be a little (or a lot) more ambitious when it comes to improving the nation's quality of life and standard of living for future generations? Or should we continue the more contemporary attitude of "we're alright, let our kids/grandkids take care of themselves"?

To the comments with you!

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