Home > Wham Hit   

17 January 2011

PR challenge of the decade


The biggest public relations challenge of the decade will be to pull away the shades and let the public see – and come to terms with – what free trade means for New Zealand society in the long-term. Most Kiwis doubtless see free trade agreements simply in terms of better market access and hence better prices for our exports. But the implications go much further than that.

For many years it has been obvious that the free trade deals favoured by New Zealand’s major political parties would have an inevitable conclusion – an increasingly integrated world economy with shrinking wage differentials between countries.

In other words, if tariffs on the trade in widgets between Germany, New Zealand and Vietnam fall to zero, the wages of widget makers in these three countries will tend to migrate to a common level, assuming similar access to technology.  

It’s a reality that successive trade ministers have chosen not to opine upon, presumably because it can easily be used as a negative by those – including trade unions and green groups – whose support for free trade is at best lukewarm. Arguing the somewhat abstract positive – that on average we will all become wealthier as a result – is a much harder task.

Instead, they have focussed on a simplistic picture of a world in which New Zealand gets better prices for its processed farm and forest products, thanks to the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to their entry to lucrative markets in industrial economies.  

So there was a wry smile at WHAM Public Relations last week when political commentator and DomPost columnist Colin James finally bearded the topic in an article about ‘the next globalisation’. Although the article was in James’ name, it almost certainly reflects the thinking of trade minister Tim Groser, one of the more insightful ministers in the National-led Government of John Key.

James suggests the next globalisation will see the merging of inequalities within economies with the inequalities between countries.

“Trade deals,” he says, “are the visible policy dimension of economic integration… But actually they may now be essentially formalising – and possibly providing the tools to better manage – the integration which is going on.”

Other examples he gives of this integration are the mass migration from poor countries and the emergence of a global technical-managerial-financial elite.

James also notes a parallel globalisation – that of the management of the world environment and its resources. Growing recognition of this interdependence lies behind persistent attempts of governments to develop a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

Here Groser is evidently comfortable with being quoted, given his internationally significant role at the climate change talks in Cancun.

It is both unfortunate and understandable that Groser and his colleagues are reluctant to take the public into their confidence about the likely direction of other major economic and environmental changes taking place both at home and around the world.

Unfortunate, because in a democracy decision-making is ultimately made by the public. For these decisions to be reasonably rational, the public needs to be well-informed. Understandable, because the public and the media that informs it, likes its news to be simple, hot and painted in black and white. Complex issues, uncertainty and shades of grey are a turn-off.

As Groser and his ministerial colleagues know, their most thoughtful speeches tend to be ignored by television, radio and the daily papers. Indeed, James is one of the few columnists or journalists in the mainstream media to grapple with what the future may hold.

There’s a certain irony that readers of the NZ Farmers Weekly – which does an excellent job of examining trade and environmental issues – are far more likely to have a grasp of these issues than readers of the NZ Herald. As for the readers of mainstream blogs and news websites, maybe the ever-popular Paris Hilton, Oprah Winfrey and Robyn Malcolm have insights to offer their followers that WHAM has yet to uncover.

Growing integration of world economies has all sorts of likely implications. In WHAM’s view, these will include:

§    The gradual internationalisation of standards for food quality, environmental protection, animal welfare and labour protection

§    The eventual adoption of a new globally accepted means of exchange, replacing or underpinning sovereign currencies (a move supported by China)

§    The evolution of a truly international, powerful labour movement, working across borders with the aim of building a consensus on minimum workplace standards

§    The United States dragging its tail on all of the above, because of an inability to reach political consensus, at the expense of the living standards of its people and its influence in the world.

Public relations firms and executives will continue to be rewarded for advocating on behalf of those who are still wedded to the fortress economy and other legacies of the first half of the 20th century. But all the evidence indicates that they will at best only succeed in delaying the inevitable.

Leading thinkers are already well-advanced in their painting of the big picture of what the globalisation end-game is likely to mean for us all. Just because reluctant politicians and market-sensitive media choose to keep it much of it hidden doesn’t mean the picture isn’t there.

The biggest public relations challenge of the decade will be to pull down the shades and let the public see – and come to terms with – their visions of what’s unfolding in our rapidly changing world.

- Trevor Walton

What do you think?
Feedback about items in WHAM Hits is welcome, within the contraints of civilised dialogue. Limit: 300 words.
Your name: Your email (not for publication):
Registration Verification Code
Please enter the code above:

This helps 'Wham' prevent automated registrations