There are smart politicians. There are great politicians. And there are lucky politicians. Being smart, great and lucky is rare. But in Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand appears fortunate to have a once-in-a-lifetime politician who seizes the moment, executes with pace and gets it done before the others have had a chance to wake up. And the world of America’s Cup politics and shenanigans isn’t lost on her and doesn’t daunt. It’s a dicey balancing act to, on one hand, support the home team in order for it to retain its unbelievable talent and assets, whilst on the other keep the man-on-the-street reassured enough to stick an ‘X’ on the ticket at the next ballot box. Juggling is a key politician’s skill.
But telling politicians what they ‘should’ do is a murky game and you’re skating on ice thinner than than the last frost of winter to do so. What is far better is to frame and contextualise in order for a decision to emerge naturally. Politics is rarely a slam-dunk, rather a treacherous middle-line amidst the bluster. Taking a helicopter view, a perspective outside of the intensity of Wellington’s cut and thrust and Auckland’s sensibilities is wise. So what did this America’s Cup achieve?
Contextualise this in a spreadsheet and the numbers would naturally disappoint. The superyachts came in for refits in dribs and drabs. Tourists were forced to stay away. The economy didn’t roar as much as was expected or forecasted. The Covid tight-rope was a little wobblier and understandably the populis was nervous about money being spent on a rich man’s sport with carbon flying around their beautiful waters of the Huaraki Gulf at 50+ knots. All valid and reasonable arguments on the glass-half-full side of the equation. But what about on the other side…
What New Zealand has done is show the world that it is open for business. Not just open but ready and capable of being a powerhouse nation full of the brightest minds with a can-do attitude. It has shown itself on the global stage as a vibrant, kind, loyal, deeply cultural, thoughtful place set in the most stunning natural amphitheatre. New Zealand has become more than a destination, it’s a desire. You want to visit. People want to do business with Kiwis and global businesses want to do business with Kiwi companies. As an individual, you want to be a part of it. You’d move heaven and earth to live there. The goodwill that this Cup has engendered is real, tangible, beneficial however it won’t show up immediately as a line on a balance sheet at government level. But it’s there.
And it’s the sheer brilliance of staging this Cup during these strained global times that is so breathtaking and foresightful. Yes the boats have done wonders to thrill and amaze and the teams have done their part admirably, but the outright winner, hands-down is New Zealand as country. The publicity value and the cultural engagement that sit off the spreadsheets is immeasurable and the future dividends to be derived are all so tangibly close that it’s almost a travesty that there’s even a conception that the nation would let the Cup go from their shores. Cancelling the contest would have been the easiest path, and certainly the one of least resistance – New Zealand didn’t do that and the world of sailing thanks you sincerely for that. It’s a gratitude that won’t be forgotten. Far more than words or numbers on a page.
For a few dollars more – barely a rounding error in government balance sheet terms – and New Zealand can secure not only the best team of the current era but a team that defines and articulates in perfect exposure just what it is to be a Kiwi and amplifies every facet of innovation, technology, determination and team-sprit to a global audience. Team New Zealand exemplifies all the qualities of the country as the very pulse of the national identity – losing it now at such a turning point in the world’s emergence from the pandemic would be fool-hardy and myopic. The simple fact is that Team New Zealand has as much, if not more, resonance with the people of New Zealand than the All Blacks do. And wow, that’s a line I thought I would or could never write.
The worst thing that can happen now for New Zealand is for the brash trash billionaires to swoop in like vultures and pick over the carcass of a dream-team reduced to its knees by a suffocation of financial oxygen. Luring away a talent that has remained loyal and committed and that will be delivering performance and excellence akin to the greatest ever seen in sport is surely worth not just fighting for but fighting to the death for. The opportunity here is for the creation of a legacy that honours a storied past of victory and noble defeat and terrifies future Cup participants whilst converting all that has been invested to date. A poker player would kill for this hand. Only a drunk would squander it.
Asking for an open chequebook is what challengers do, it’s beneath winners. What is required is a partnership. Getting around the table before the end of this cycle would do wonders for both parties. Moving forward together. Figuring out the path and yes, securing the talent and the IP right now is going to require additional investment – no question, that’s reality.
Global governments are all in a hole, desperate to find not only a palatable fiscal way out in the form of stealth taxation but, far more crucially, a way to re-ignite their nations from a collective depression. Sport is vital to that. New Zealand has a pinnacle event in a tight, vice-like grasp and to loosen that grip would be a travesty just when the pot of gold commercially, culturally and emotionally is hoving into view. To be honest, losing it now could conceivably be damaging on a global public relations basis. Near-term politics is easy, visionary politics takes guts but I have to have every confidence that Ardern will see the global picture and will be supported both politically and by the nation if she makes a bold decision.
The clock is ticking though. The government has three months from the final gun to get real about the America’s Cup before the market rotates viciously and violently. If they commit and convert on the investment already made, then the world will come – we would have been there if we could this time – and the benefits will blow that spreadsheet to pieces. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Lose it now on short-termism and populism to politics that matters little in the long run and the goodwill generated and the investments to date all become a hill of beans. The opportunity lost is mighty. Kiwis don’t do ‘so close but so far’ they go all in, they compete, they win and they win with great style and dignity. The world admires New Zealand when we are lucky enough to see it and the America’s Cup is one of the greatest showcases imaginable for the nation. No amount of tourist board initiatives can compete. Don’t lose it now. Just don’t.
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears,” is how Nelson Mandela put it and it’s apt as Ardern and her political peers wrestle with the Cup conundrum. We all know it’s hard, impossibly so, but make the right choice now and a nation will back you. Sometimes you have to be hard as nails to do the right thing. You have to be bold in the face of conflict, resolute at the moment of doubt. It’s a lonely place being a politician.
But New Zealand is on the cusp of greatness not just in sporting terms but in the great global reset. It’s an opportunity that happens once in a century. Now it’s New Zealand’s time to shine and flourish using the America’s Cup to its great advantage. Don’t squander it.
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