Roger Douglas, from Wikimedia
(The 7th of 8 posts about my new life in New Zealand)
In brief, the policies introduced by Minister of Finance Sir Roger Douglas in the 1980s included the rapid elimination of import tariffs that protected New Zealand farmers and manufacturers; rapid privatization of state owned industries (most ended up under foreign ownership); stringent anti-union legislation; and substantial cuts in social welfare benefits. With the abolition of import controls, New Zealand companies struggled to compete against cheap imported goods from Asia. This resulted in multiple plant closures, massive layoffs and more than a decade of unrelenting hardship for communities that relied on these industries.
The 1984 reforms also resulted in seven years of continuous economic stagnation, during which the New Zealand economy shrank by 1% in contrast with an average 20% growth in other OECD countries.
The Mass Exodus of Generations X and Y
The most enduring harm stemming from the 1984 reforms is the staggering loss of human capital that continues to this day. At present approximately one million Kiwis – representing one quarter New Zealand’s current population of four million – live overseas.
As I wrote previously, the massive sell-off of both state-owned and private companies to foreign owners has translated into a chronic accounts deficit (negative balance of trade), as profits and dividends disappear overseas. To compensate for this steady loss of wealth, New Zealand, under pressure to increase exports, entered into “free trade” treaties that forced them to reduce tariffs and quotas even more. This led to the shut down of even more factories, which had no hope of competing with overseas companies that paid sweat shop wages to third world workers.
The Student Loan Debacle
In my view, the most damaging neoliberal reform of the 1980s was the decision to replace government subsidized tertiary education (which until recently was standard in most European countries) with a student loan scheme. While lumbering young people with student loan debt can prove problematic for large, broad-based economies like US and Britain, the policy has proved absolutely disastrous for New Zealand. Repaying a student loan is extremely difficult on the low salaries Kiwi professionals earn. Thus a third or more of new college graduates to emigrate. In my view, this continual hemorrhage of human capital is a major reason New Zealand remains near the bottom of OECD countries for economic growth, productivity and salaries.
At present approximately one-third of medical students leave New Zealand following graduation. Many really have no choice, strapped with giant student loan repayments while simultaneously looking to buy a home and start a family. Their only hope of managing this massive financial stress is to seek work in Australia or the UK, where they can command a 20-30% higher salary than here in New Zealand. And once they buy a home and their kids start school, they very rarely return.
A recent study estimated 37% of new NZ teachers leave New Zealand schools within the first three years. In addition to doctors and teachers, New Zealand also loses a large proportion of the nurses, physiotherapists, social workers, audiologists and other health professionals they train – as well as engineers, urban planners and veterinarians, who are also on New Zealand Immigration’s critical skills shortage list.
New Zealand’s Neoliberal Transportation Policy
Other really destructive neoliberal policies New Zealand enacted in the eighties and nineties relate to public transportation: 1) the privatization of New Zealand railways (leading to the immediate shutdown of all but four routes) and 2) the dismantling of local public transportation systems. Both have resulted in extreme reliance on private automobiles and foreign oil, the second biggest culprit in our accounts deficit.
New Zealand, which still has a predominantly rural population (only 1/3 of Kiwis live in major cities), has also been extremely slow in implementing rational growth management strategies. For all these reasons, it holds the embarrassing honor of the highest rate of car ownership in the world.