'Short-term thinking prevails, hindering our ability to tackle long-term challenges'
Dr Ganesh Nana is chair of the Productivity Commission. Dr Nana spent 22 years at the consultancy Business and Economics Research Limited. He is a current member of the Government-established Welfare Expert Advisory Group. OPINION: In a world grappling with systemic challenges, protecting the interests of future generations has never been more crucial. Our current political structures, public policy systems, and public discourse often fail to adequately address the long-term consequences of decisions, leading to short-termism that jeopardises the opportunities for generations to come. To understand the urgency of this, we need only look at the pressing issues we face today climate change, biodiversity loss, and socio-economic inequities already shaping the lives of future generations. I firmly believe it's time for a fundamental shift in our approach. There is a growing recognition that nations must consider the needs of future generations formally in legislation and government decision-making. The United Nations (UN) has established a special envoy, and a proposal for a UN Declaration on Future Generations has gained traction. Initiatives like the Wellbeing for Future Generations Legislation and Future Generation Commissioner in Wales provide inspiration. They demonstrate its possible to safeguard the interests of future generations and offer hope for young people struggling with what their future may look like. Recently, Sophie Howe, the first ever future generation commissioner, visited New Zealand. Her message was met with tremendous enthusiasm: No matter how well-intentioned a government is, Howe says, they require an external challenge to become brave. When you set a vision of where you want to be, it's easier to work out what steps you can take to get towards that. It's much more difficult when you're sort of trying to inspire people to take action or sometimes to do difficult things when they're just trying to avoid catastrophe. The Productivity Commissions A Fair Chance for All inquiry explored international models such as the revolutionary approach in Wales. But a solution for Aotearoa New Zealand needs to consider our unique situation. This includes our commitment to uphold the mana of, and obligations to te Tiriti o Waitangi, and our geopolitical and legislative context to implement effective future-oriented governance and accountability arrangements. Our inquiry identified critical weaknesses in Aotearoa New Zealands current public management system. Short-term thinking prevails, hindering our ability to tackle long-term challenges effectively and make decisions that benefit multiple generations. New Zealand also lacks the necessary forums, frameworks, and institutions to protect the interests of our future communities. To bridge this gap, we recommend a re-set of clear long-term wellbeing objectives, which would necessitate cross-party agreement for sustained commitment. Embedding broader dimensions of wellbeing (through frameworks like He Ara Waiora that Treasury are using alongside their Living Standards Framework) will help uncover previously concealed trade-offs, so we don't jeopardise the future for short-term gains. Our pursuit of better protection for the productivity potential of future generations and socio-economic wellbeing, requires the establishment of a shared vision to guide decision-making, alongside enhancing New Zealands ability to anticipate future risks and opportunities. To enable this, we advocate for the introduction of a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and a new Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations, whose statutory role would be to represent the interests of future generations. We propose the role, as an officer of Parliament (joining the auditor general, the Ombudsman and the parliamentary commissioner for the environment) would have sufficient independence from the here-and-now political imperative to challenge short-term biases. The new commissioner would have a range of functions, including being tasked with directly strengthening New Zealands capacity to understand the future, integrating long-term thinking into policy processes, and enhancing governance and decision-making mechanisms. We also propose that the commissioner would have the power to advise on the potential impact of the Budget on future generations. We considered whether existing institutions could be adapted or expanded to provide such functions. But, concluded that, given the weight of status quo bias present, this would be unlikely to be enough, nor would it necessarily be a cheaper or faster solution. However, we expect the new commissioner to collaborate and work alongside other institutions that do have a partial role or mandate in anticipating the future. Without this formal commitment to future generations, New Zealand policy makers will continue to lack the confidence to reorientate the public management system to commit resources at the scale needed to address long term issues, and to make the compromises required to address intergenerational issues, such as climate change and persistent disadvantage. Adapting our public management system to protect the interests of future generations, as Sophie Howe says, will take bravery. But as is increasingly emerging in Wales, it has the potential to catalyse a profound transformation prioritising long-term sustainability over short-term gains. By embracing this change and confronting the challenges, we can create a fair chance for all and secure a promising future for generations yet to come. We need to have the social and political maturity, and courage to recognise that sometimes the primary thing we all have in common is the future, and being a good ancestor means such a future is worth protecting.