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Nervous Kiwis shy away from boldness
Brian Gaynor
Saturday December 2, 2006

Former Fletcher Building chief executive Ralph Waters is right on the money when he says the opposition to Auckland's waterfront stadium indicates a deep-running "nervous psyche" in New Zealand.

We proudly promote the "Kiwi can do" attitude, but our first instinct is to oppose most new developments.

The waterfront debacle clearly indicates that the "Kiwi can do" slogan should be replaced by "Kiwi won't do".

Waters told the Thrive business conference in Wellington that New Zealanders lacked confidence and positive thinking.

We don't want a waterfront stadium, a south-eastern highway in Auckland, toll roads, new South Island hydro schemes, the establishment of a secure electricity link into Auckland or the conversion of Whenuapai Airport into a commercial operation.

We oppose these and most other major projects because of our "nervous psyche". We are afraid something will go wrong, that these projects will adversely affect the environment and/or a number of individuals.

Given the opportunity, the New Zealand public would have rejected Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings project because it would have cost too much and wouldn't have been completed on time and the money would have been better spent on something else.

This lack of confidence and positive thinking is having an adverse effect on the economy and our standard of living. Over the past two decades, our Australian neighbours have swept past us because of their "can do" attitude whereas we have steadily dropped down the OECD economic prosperity ladder because of a lack of ambition and innovation.

New Zealand hasn't always been this way.

I paid a short visit to New Zealand in the early 1970s while living in Australia.

The big impression was of this country's great road network: Auckland had a modern motorway running through the centre whereas Sydney was one big traffic jam.

The three largest New Zealand cities were more progressive than Brisbane, which was a hick town in the early 1970s.

New Zealand's infrastructure appeared to be in much better state than Australia's at the time.

The same could be said for sports stadiums. The Wallabies played most of their home games at the Sydney Cricket Ground, which was woefully inadequate for football, whereas Eden Park was the best rugby ground in Australasia.

Only 11,000 attended the All Black/Wallaby test at the SCG on May 25, 1974, and 13,000 were at Ballymore Oval in Brisbane the following week when the two teams met again.

Eden Park attracted a full house of 56,000 for the All Blacks' last test before the Australian tour.

Over the past 30 years, New Zealand's confidence has taken some big hits, particularly from Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's Think Big Projects, the 1987 sharemarket crash and recent corporate debacles.

These have been major contributors to the country's "nervous psyche", and the Resource Management Act has enabled this negative sentiment to be translated into inaction.

The immediate and sustained opposition to the proposed waterfront stadium was a frightening insight into this psyche.

It is doubtful that the citizens of any other country would have had such a negative response, particularly for a project to be used for an international event that would showcase their country to the world.

The negative attitude has continued since the waterfront stadium was abandoned. There is now a strong sentiment to spend as little as possible on a revamped Eden Park, and temporary seating is being seen as the best way to achieve the 60,000 capacity requirement.

The opposition to the waterfront stadium was based on several arguments including the cost, the limited time frame and the negative effect on the waterfront.

There is no doubt the project would have cost far more than the projected $500 million, probably closer to $1 billion. This should be looked at in the context of other figures including:

* New Zealanders borrowed $1.42 billion in October to invest in housing and $16.35 billion over the past 12 months. Why is it wrong for the government to promote a $1 billion national stadium when we have collectively borrowed $16.35 billion to invest in houses in 12 months? Some of this ends up in beach houses that will be far less used than a national stadium.

* New Zealand had an overseas trade deficit of $1.17 billion in October. Why has so much emotion been spent on a proposed $1 billion stadium when a monthly trade deficit of $1.17 billion has much more serious implications for our standard of living?

* The Government's Budget surplus and low level of debt would enable it to fund a facility that we could be proud of when the world spotlight is on us in 2011.

The most worrying aspect of the stadium negativity is the lack of confidence in the country's engineers and architects.

The waterfront project would have been a major challenge, but if our perceptions of ourselves are correct that is what New Zealanders thrive on.

With a bit of Peter Jackson-like creativity the waterfront stadium could have been far more than a sports stadium. It could have been used for cultural, entertainment, accommodation, educational, business and/or community recreational events between sporting occasions.

The hosting of a major sporting event offers a great opportunity to make bold and innovative decisions. We have failed to take this opportunity and it is more than likely that used cars from Japan and rotting bananas will continue to have priority over public access on the Auckland waterfront.

The decision-making process is also seriously flawed when two out of three parties involved, the Government and Auckland City Council, are in favour but the third, the Auckland Regional Council, vetoes it.

The ARC's role is particularly interesting because it owns Ports of Auckland and Mt Smart Stadium and is the only one of the three that has made no commitment to put money into the waterfront stadium or Eden Park.

The ARC had a potential conflict of interest, as Ports of Auckland is in merger talks with Port of Tauranga and the Warriors rugby league team could have been persuaded to move from Mt Smart Stadium to the waterfront.

Mike Lee, the elected chairman of the ARC, is proving to be an astute businessman, and it is difficult to know how he and his fellow councillors reconciled their commercial and political interests when making the waterfront decision.

Cynics will argue that Ralph Waters has stirred the pot because Fletcher Building will be the main beneficiary from the construction of a new stadium.

This belittles the huge contribution Waters has made to business and his efforts to persuade New Zealand to become more positive, innovative and adventurous.

The compulsory superannuation issue is a classic example of our negativity. More than 90 per cent voted against compulsory savings in the 1997 referendum yet most people now claim they voted in favour.

What is the betting that when the 2011 Rugby World Cup opens in a cheaply- renovated Eden Park, and the eastern waterfront is still closed to public access, most Aucklanders will claim they supported the waterfront stadium five years earlier?

* Disclosure of interest: Brian Gaynor is an investment strategist and analyst at Milford Asset Management.