• Air New Zealand Shows the Way

    In the ten years or so before my wife (English born and bred but now a proud Kiwi) and I returned to live in New Zealand, we flew back to New Zealand from Britain on many occasions. We always felt, as we boarded the Air New Zealand flight at Heathrow, that in doing so we had already returned home.

    There was something about the atmosphere on the plane, as we settled into our seats for the long flight, that was quintessentially New Zealand. Whether it was the soft New Zealand accent, the ready smiles of the cabin staff, that attractive combination of efficiency and friendliness that Kiwis seem to manage so effortlessly, there could be no doubt that we had already engaged with a slightly different culture from the one we were leaving.

    That sense was reinforced, I recall, on one flight that took place while a rugby test between the All Blacks and South Africa was being played. We, with many others on board, were keen to know the result. The captain obliged by relaying the score to us throughout the flight, and he was greeted with a mighty cheer when he reported that the All Blacks had won (this is, after all, a good news story!)

    On one of our earlier visits, I recall my wife wondering out loud as to why everyone we met (and by that she meant not people we knew but those we came across in shops, hotels, restaurants) was so friendly and helpful. I attempted an answer by observing that whereas the British class system meant that many of those obliged to serve others did so either with excessive obsequiousness or with sullen resentment, Kiwis had no such hang-ups.

    These recollections were brought to mind when we once again boarded an Air New Zealand flight to fly home last week. We had flown with a different airline (which will remain nameless) on two legs of our journey there and back, and had bemoaned the indifferent service, the poor food and the uncomfortable seats.

    The Air New Zealand flight, by comparison, was a revelation. The food (inspired by Peter Gordon) was excellent, the wine delicious, the seats (so far as they can be) comfortable, and the service – true to form – friendly and helpful.

    When our young grandson was asked after a long night what he would like as a hot drink for breakfast, he wasn’t interested in the suggested tea or coffee but, when prompted, expressed interest in a Milo instead. A few minutes later, the steward returned with a cup made especially for him.

    None of this means that Air New Zealand is perfect – no airline is, and long-haul air travel in particular is always a bind. But we are entitled to conclude that the particularly New Zealand characteristics they bring to their task do make a difference – and that is borne out by the consistently high ratings they register from passenger surveys and international awards.

    That customer satisfaction is reflected, too, in the impressive commercial performance that Air New Zealand turns in. These are tough times for airlines but Air New Zealand, while having its own problems to overcome, has succeeded in business terms better than most.

    But the real lesson to be learnt from Air New Zealand’s success is that treating customers as people and allowing the personality (and, in this case, the specifically New Zealand personality) of the company to shine through are not inconsistent with – and are indeed an important contributor to – a positive bottom line.

    It is worth learning this lesson and applying it more widely, before we are all absorbed into the same homogenised global economy in which national characteristics and individual service are sacrificed to the over-riding drive to cut costs. No country has embraced the global economy more enthusiastically than New Zealand and – more than any other developed country – we have allowed large chunks of our national economy to pass into foreign hands.

    The decisions that are made by those foreign owners are reached in boardrooms located far from our shores – in New York, Shanghai, or if we are lucky, Sydney – by people who know little and care less about what makes New Zealand and New Zealanders tick. They owe no loyalty or commitment to our values or ways of doing things; their sole concern is the short-term return on their investment.

    What Air New Zealand’s success should tell us is that our peculiarly New Zealand way of doing things has a real value. That value can be measured and expressed in social and cultural terms by New Zealanders because they are familiar and comfortable with it but also by others who find it appealing precisely because it is unfamiliar to them; and, importantly, it also has a marketable value in commercial terms in today’s global economy. We would be foolish to give it up.

    Bryan Gould

    3 August 2013.

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 13 August.

  • Rupert and the Rioters

    Rupert Murdoch and his News International have good reason to be grateful to the rioters. They were able to drop out of the headlines themselves, for a time at least, and to report on others making the news for a change.

    But their respite was short-lived. The apparently incontrovertible and growing evidence of cover-up and dishonesty has compounded the outrage felt at the phone-hacking revelations. They now find themselves – with the publication of Clive Goodman’s letter – back in centre stage.

    It is perhaps appropriate that they should share double billing at this point with the rioters. Perhaps the one issue is linked with the other? The search is on, after all, for an explanation of what may otherwise seem inexplicable – how could young people act with such an absence of any decent impulse? Without any thought for damage they were doing to the society in which they lived?

    The Prime Minister, no less, opines that parts of English society are “broken” and has declared a social “fightback”; but fighting back will be ineffective if the enemy remains unidentified. Punishing individual rioters may be necessary and unavoidable, but that in itself will do little to drill down into the real causes of social breakdown.

    At this point, step forward Rupert Murdoch and News international. Here, after all, are those who –through their power in the media – have arguably done more than any others to shape our society over recent decades.

    We now have a fairly accurate idea of the values and principles they have brought to that task – the evidence provided by what we now know about their own disreputable business practices. We know that they have little regard for legality or honesty, that they feel contempt for those they report on, and that they will use their power to threaten or cajole when challenged.

    They purport to hold up a mirror to society, to show people how they and others – their neighbours, their workmates – actually behave. But the mirror has been distorted. They have, in an effort to shock and titillate so as to sell more of their product, pushed back the boundaries of what is regarded as acceptable. They show, not what most people think or do, but what those at margins of society get up to – and the more outrageous the better.

    Underpinning this distortion of what is normal and responsible is the cult of celebrity. The constantly repeated and largely subliminal message is that, however despicable the behaviour, it is to be excused and even celebrated if the perpetrator is featured in the headlines. Celebrity cures all. Fame and money are all that matter.

    The result is that young people in particular are left without a moral compass. Sexuality is a commodity and selling agent. Money is the greatest desideratum, however it is acquired. Those who deserve to be admired and emulated are those whose success is measured by how much they have been able to grab, even – and especially – when it is at the expense of others. In all of this, the personal mantra of the News International proprietors is faithfully reflected.

    The Murdoch media have been major influences in creating a debased popular culture. The old social virtues of mutual support, helping one’s neighbour, have been supplanted. Little wonder that young people, with little life experience and nothing much by way of role-models to emulate or moral guidance to follow, have been especially susceptible to the message delivered to them unremittingly by the Murdoch media.

    There are of course other contenders to shoulder the major responsibility for social breakdown. Among the leading candidates would have to be the development in a recessionary climate of an economy in which unskilled labour no longer has a part to play.

    Give or take the odd millionaire’s daughter who popped up like manna from heaven for the headline writers, the young people who took their chance in the riots (manipulated no doubt by social media-savvy fomenters of trouble) saw no future for themselves because they knew they had been dismissed as worthless by the rest of society. They reasoned that grabbing what they could when the moment arrived was just the kind of behaviour that would be rewarded not just with material gain but with a brief and local celebrity.

    So, when David Cameron launches his fightback, why not look for starters at the role of Murdoch media which have been allowed – by exploiting their power with the benevolent connivance of successive governments – to exercise a disproportionate and malign influence on our young people?

    Bryan Gould

    18 August 2011

  • Bryan Gould Speaks to UNESCO

    Speech to the UNESCO General Conference By the Chair of the New Zealand National Commission Mr Bryan Gould

    Tena koutou katoa kua huihui mai nei i tenei ra.

    (English translation: Greetings to all who have gathered here today).

    Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen

    In 1946, when UNESCO’s Constitution came into force, New Zealand was the second country to step forward to sign it. We did so, in the aftermath of a tragic conflict, so that the instinct for peace should take hold in the minds of new generations. So, with other founder members, we signed up for a future built on the life of the mind and the heart and the spirit – on education, culture, the sciences, and the free exchange of information and ideas.

    Sixty three years later, New Zealand continues to support UNESCO’s goals. Both at home, in managing our own affairs, and in offering an example internationally and particularly in the Pacific sub-region, we try to demonstrate through our actions the value of UNESCO’s agenda for progress.

    So, we are strong supporters of education for sustainable development and we have an active network of ASPnet schools committed to UNESCO’s values. In science, we focus on waiora, the Maori word for our sustainable fresh-water resources. The bicultural foundation of our country – Maori and pakeha – gives us a strong base to take advantage of the growing cultural diversity that enriches our society. And we continue to enjoy, and encourage others to emulate our commitment to, a free press and the free exchange of ideas.

    What we seek is to lead by example, to cast new light on old problems, to think strategically, to change attitudes, to open minds, to know and understand more of ourselves and of others.

    We like to think that New Zealand lives UNESCO’s ideals. We do so at what is another critical moment in the world’s affairs. The global recession may not be a disaster on quite the scale of the Second World War, but it should lead us nevertheless to re-affirm the great value and importance of what UNESCO stands for. The recession, after all, was the end result of a doctrine that said that all that really mattered was the maximisation of profits for the masters of the global economy.

    We now know that we cannot entrust human progress to the tender care of the bottom line. That way lies not just economic crisis, but ecological degradation, social disintegration, and international conflict. Man is not just an economic animal. The lessons of the recession should teach us that the way forward lies – not with ever faster and less responsible consumption of material things by a small fraction of the world’s population – but with learning more about and responding better to our relationships with each other and with our planet.

    A General Conference is inevitably concerned with budgets, elections, resolutions, organisational structures and processes. But we must never lose sight of UNESCO’s true purposes, and each of our individual decisions should be judged according to whether it advances or hinders the achievement of those goals. So, New Zealand, from our vantage-point in the Pacific sub-region – the sub-region most distant from Paris and covering the greatest number of countries and the largest geographical area, but a sub-region challenged not only by immediate dangers of which last week’s tsunami is a sad and destructive example, but also by longer-term threats such as climate change – has naturally been a consistent advocate for decentralisation. We welcome the report of the second task force review. But modalities are less important than people. We continue to be concerned at the damaging delays in recruiting professional staff to the UNESCO Office for the Pacific in Apia. There is no point in changing the structure if we cannot commit the resources to make it work. Similarly, we are concerned about the performance indicators proposed in the draft 35C/5. We are not convinced that these largely quantitative performance indicators will provide a meaningful assessment of the Organisation’s effectiveness. They may be easily measured but they tell us little about our real achievements; at worst, their adoption could lead to a diversionary goal displacement. We strongly encourage the Organisation to undertake further work on this issue. We continue to believe that working across sectors and themes is the way UNESCO should operate. The next Medium-Term Strategy UNESCO programme should, we believe, be organised around these intersectoral themes with a Secretariat that mirrors this structure. Two years ago, my predecessor delivered her speech to the General Conference while wearing a Maori cloak or korowai. I am similarly privileged today. The cloak that I wear has been gifted by the National Commission to UNESCO as a taonga or cultural treasure. It is a work reflecting the great skill of a traditional weaver who has brought together a range of materials to produce something of significance, value and beauty. It is, we like to think, a suitable metaphor for the role that UNESCO should and must play in tomorrow’s world.No reira, tena koutou katoa.(English translation: In conclusion, greetings to you all).

  • Step Forward Unesco

    April in Paris is guaranteed to put a spring in the step of those fortunate enough to be here. Some may think, however, that attending the 181st session of Unesco’s Executive Board is not the best way to take advantage of the world’s most beautiful city.

    But, while it is true that Unesco meetings are afflicted by the endless wrangling over procedure and drafting changes that characterise most international organisations, springtime may well be just round the corner – for Unesco, as well as for Paris. While the air is thick with warnings about the impact of the global economic crisis on Unesco projects, particularly in the developing world, there is good reason to think that that same crisis might propel Unesco – representing a quite different view of what is now needed – to the forefront of the global response.

    We have, after all, witnessed the sudden demise of a set of beliefs which had placed huge emphasis on man as a purely economic being. For thirty years, we have increasingly handed control of our societies and economies over to those who insisted that all that really mattered was the bottom line, market forces, the profit motive. Economic man was, it was argued, all there was. The only way to extract maximum benefit for and from economic man was to entrust his future and wellbeing to the high priests of economic science – those lords of creation who alone understood the arcane secrets of what made economies tick and who required a heavy tribute, as bankers, financiers, and market manipulators, to reward them for their scarce and valuable skills.

    We now know the outcomes produced by the exercise of those skills. The world’s economies have been laid waste by the global crisis – so much for that famed and hugely rewarded expertise – but the crisis itself was preceded by a growing recognition of the price to be paid for letting markets rip. Global warming, pollution, the threat to natural resources, a growing gap between rich and poor, have all been forerunners and storm signals of what is now revealed as the collapse of the era of economic man.

    The time has come, surely, to recognise that our future as a species – perhaps even the future of our planet – now depends on more than the narrow, market-driven measurement of GDP. Economic recovery is certainly a priority, but it is a necessary rather than sufficient condition for a better future. We must now pay attention to wider questions – what is important to us as individuals and in our communities, what makes us who we are, what it means to be human. We need a new and more respectful relationship with the natural world in which we live and a greater hunger to understand and live harmoniously with our neighbours.

    Step forward Unesco. The oldest UN agency, during the era of economic man, has been pushed to the sidelines. Its emphasis on education, on the physical, human and social sciences, on culture and language, on the sustainable use of natural resources, as the mainsprings of human development and wellbeing, has seemed quaintly old-fashioned in an era of aggressive profit-seeking. But a re-statement of those goals and values is now overdue. We can now assert, amidst the wreckage created by economic man, that we are more than economic agents, and that Unesco’s preoccupations point the way to a more complete and empowering sense of where our future lies.

    It is after all the world’s billions who will pay for the current mess with their jobs, their homes, their taxes, perhaps even their lives. It is their interests – not those of banks and financial institutions – that should take centre stage. The focus of governments around the world on shoring up those institutions with taxpayers’ money may well be necessary in the short term, but an agenda based on the integrated wellbeing of people and societies will be needed if we are to restore the life chances of those ravaged by economic crisis.

    There are, in other words, better ways of spending our money. If we want a decisive break with the mistakes of the immediate past, we should be investing for more than a short-term financial return. Our focus should be on strategically planned programmes for education in countries where schooling is still at a premium, in the strengthening of cultural identities to give people confidence to understand who they are and how they can play a constructive role in the world, in projects to protect and develop sustainable supplies of fresh water.

    An agency like Unesco has never been funded to undertake these activities itself. Its current budget is pathetically small, and – in the current crisis – likely to get smaller. But, with proper financing, Unesco can provide the intellectual leadership and strategic direction to ensure that skills and capabilities that are at present scattered and fragmented across the globe can be linked and coordinated, so that we get the maximum benefit from what we already have. Unesco’s role is to help us to do better than merely learn what not to do. Agencies like Unesco can help us move forward by providing outcomes that are greater than the sum of their parts.

    If these efforts are not made, we will be slower out of crisis and less confident of our future than we should be. With all the talk of trillions being spent on the economic agenda, a tiny fraction of that sum spent on the human agenda would pay rich dividends. That should be the real lesson learned from the demise of economic man.

    Bryan Gould

    26 April 2009

    Bryan Gould chairs the New Zealand National Commission for Unesco.

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 28 April.