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Regional and Urban Development Conference

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 9 December 1997
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

E nga mana tangata whenua, e nga reo, rau rangatira ma; tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

I pay respects to the authority of the people of this place: and to the speakers and to the distinguished people who are assembled here, I extend greetings.

Your Worship the Mayor Mark Blumsky, Vice Chancellor Professor Holborow, Dr Morrison, Professor Poot and members of your Organising Committee, Council Presidents, distinguished delegates from Australia, China and Southeast Asia, from Japan and Korea, from Europe, from North and South America, all who have travelled here from far and near, ladies and gentlemen.

First may I extend a warm welcome to all who have come to this Conference from places over the seas. I see that the Mayor is to speak after me, and I have no doubt that he will not only welcome all our visitors to this capital city of Wellington, but he will also tell you, with entire accuracy, how splendid a city it is, and he will quite rightly urge you to take a little time away from the business of your conference to enjoy something of the Wellington experience. I would simply like to say that we in New Zealand are always delighted when important international conferences are held in this country, for we enjoy looking after our visitors and we believe we have much to offer those who make the very modest effort that, these days, is needed to come here.

Next may I thank the Organisers for inviting me here today, to the opening of this extraordinary conference of yours: extraordinary, to me at least, because of the range of the topics that the Conference programme discloses are included under the heading of regional science. And to be frank, the breadth of your multi-disciplinary approach still leaves me somewhat astounded - as perhaps it did you, when you first encountered it.

But the sheer breadth, or range, of regional science quickly begins to make sense when one thinks about it. The comprehensiveness of your approach to analysing and describing regions, as opposed to a focus on nations or groups of nations, is simply necessary, given the huge changes in the world, the revolutionary decreases in the cost of transportation and communications to name just two; changes that, as we all know, have been accelerating in recent decades.

And of course the rate of urban growth has also been very great, bringing with it a whole raft of problems and challenges.

It's that ever-increasing pace of change that clearly warrants your innovative combination of different disciplines, the synthesis of once-separate fields of knowledge. But to understand and then to communicate such abstractions as an increasing rate of change, must always be a demanding task. But of course, ways can be found. For instance, there was a display in the Ontario Science Centre, in Toronto- I believe it's still there - showing the world's population in lights. There was a map of the world, with one light for every so-many thousand people: so, the bigger the city, the more brightly it glowed. Modern day Auckland only glimmered, Wellington was even fainter, but New York, London, New Delhi, Beijing, and Tokyo fairly radiated. Yet you only saw those latter cities really start to glow once every few minutes - because the display showed the changes in the world's population from tens of thousands of years ago to the present. So even at centuries per minute, it was quite a long time from the start of the sequence to its end. The display was somewhat static at first, with just a glint here and there, first in Africa, then the Middle East, but apart from that, nothing much happened. But then, after several minutes - 20 to 30,000 years in other words - with few if any new lights, in the final few seconds of the sequence, lights suddenly started going on everywhere - in Europe, in North and South America, in Africa and, particularly, in Asia.

It was a very effective way of demonstrating just how historically-compressed some changes in the world have been, and are. Other quantum leaps might usefully be displayed in the same sort of way - some of the leaps in science and technology most particularly. Because along with the steep rise in global population, the pace of change in these two inter-related fields is also historically unprecedented.

This small and relatively isolated country in its short history has seen quite dramatic change, no less striking by reason of our smallness on the global scale. One of our most respected contemporary historians, James Belich, has made the point that New Zealand's history is not particularly long by the standards of many other parts of the world, but instead, is extremely fast. This is true of the rate of European settlement - there were no more than 2,000 Europeans here in 1840 - it is true of the way in which the country's resources were developed, it is true of the way in which society and social attitudes evolved. I think it is fair to say that New Zealand has a history of being innovative, even adventurous, in many, many respects, and for present purposes, especially when it comes to making the sort of changes in public policy that affect all aspects of regional and national development.

The first great change here, about which comparatively little is known in any detail, was the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers about 1,000 years ago, and their impact on what had been entirely virgin nature. Another change, much more recent but still under-studied, was the transformation of New Zealand's physical environment during the 1860s, '70s and '80s. This was the period in our history when much land in New Zealand was cleared of native vegetation and put into pastoral production. In the 1890s, another innovation was women's suffrage, when New Zealand became the first nation where women had the vote. Forty years after that, during the Great Depression and the Second World War, decision-making about all aspects of New Zealand's economy was increasingly centralised, and at the same time the welfare state reached its zenith. And while this centralising trend was at its strongest, the percentage of the country's population living on the land dropped from being a great majority to the small minority it is today - 15% in fact.

Accompanying this the shift from country to town, has been a shift from south to north. Dunedin in the far south was once the commercial centre of the country, but the centre has moved north, first to Wellington and then to Auckland. Auckland's growth, and the very nature of its social structure, has been accelerated by large numbers of migrants from the Pacific Islands, and more recently from Asia. The figures are interesting. Until 1896, more people lived in the South Island than in the North. But 60 years later, in 1956, 69% were in the North Island, while in 1996 it was almost 75%. 85% of New Zealanders now live in urban areas, while 29% live in Auckland. Over half of the population lives in the northern half of the North Island. This rapid concentration of the population in the one area has brought about very considerable social problems, as one would expect, and is I am sure the centre of much attention from those concerned with urban and social planning.

While these demographic changes have been taking place, over the last fifteen years, New Zealand has vigorously de-regulated; has swung away from centralisation to a marked degree - there has been deregulation in transport, in telecommunications, in commerce, in labour markets; in short, in very many things, and the effects of all this change are still becoming apparent.

Cause and effect can be difficult to establish, of course. Because while the effect of the recent changes in New Zealand's economic order have all favoured devolution of once-central authority, some changes allow much greater integration, than ever before in our history: time and distance for instance, are much less important in New Zealand than once they were. Our geography could almost be said to have changed as much as has the way we govern ourselves. Until relatively recently, New Zealand could be an exceptionally difficult country to travel around in. Journeys from one region to another could easily take days or even weeks. And this was true from pre-European times to, in some parts of the country, just the last twenty to thirty years. For example, until the first air services were established on the West Coast of the South Island and in the Poverty Bay region on the east of the North Island, travel to or from those areas was a major undertaking. At some times of the year, from Gisborne say, it could even be quicker to take ship to Sydney than to travel overland to Auckland. Yet while that was the geographical reality, because New Zealand's economy was so centralised, a labourer in the Bay of Plenty was likely to receive the same hourly rate as a worker in Auckland, even though labour demand was very much higher in Auckland's much bigger regional economy.

Separating the effects of so many different changes can therefore be a tricky business. I'm sure all delegates to this conference will recognise the potential problems. Independent variables abound. Which must mean that you are not eager for much in the way of additional subject matter to consider. And yet it seems to me that a very important aspect of the subject matter of your conference is the role of beliefs, philosophies or ethics, in the way peoples live their lives, and that must surely shape the environment in which they live and work. This struck me quite forcibly just last Friday, when I went to Nelson to a function commemorating International Volunteer Day.

Nelson is at the north of the west coast of the South Island. The region of which it is the centre has a population of about 80,000. I was told that there had been an attempt to quantify the contribution voluntary workers had made. It was found that in 1995, some eleven hundred volunteers had worked for approximately 97,000 hours for different agencies. Assuming that the equivalent work were to be done commercially, it was believed that that labour would have cost $9.11 an hour. So the volunteer contribution to Nelson's economy came to $6.9 million dollars.

Of course people don't usually do that sort of calculation, and even if they did, how much is inevitably left out of that sort of account. What volunteers do really cannot be satisfactorily measured. Besides, you probably couldn't employ anyone to do many of the things that volunteers do so willingly. And so however good the numbers look, they never convey the whole story, or capture the true and total worth of what volunteers accomplish; whether in Nelson; or elsewhere in New Zealand; or anywhere in the world where volunteers work for the common good.

As Professor Tony Sorenson is to point out in his Presidential address, regional scientists should perhaps be paying more attention to some of the difficult-to-measure aspects of regional growth and development: leadership is a quality he is to mention, as well as the social virtues of trust and thrift.

I suspect this is the hidden challenge to all you delegates at this Conference - whether your deliberations are going to be too-careful, overly-neutral, in talking about regional science, or are some of the less-quantifiable aspects of the subject matters going to be considered as well? I know that this might seem to some of you beyond your brief, yet it would, it seems to me, to be the truly realistic, all-inclusive approach, to getting to grips with the core questions of your field of study. For in the end, planning and development are essentially about people; not so much about managing them or planning for them, as about meeting their legitimate needs and aspirations, and ensuring that they are involved, and that their talents are used, in the processes that are necessary for good governance.

I trust that both our visitors and the New Zealand contingent to this Conference have a highly productive four days. And for those who have not visited this country before, I hope you are able to take just a little time during and after this meeting, to see something of this land of which we are so proud. Without further ado, it is now my pleasure to declare this, the Regional and Urban Development Conference, officially open. Haere, haere, haere mai.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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