Speech: Parmjeet Parmar

Real Change Now, SkyCity Theatre, 4 June 2023

My name is Parmjeet Parmar.  I’m thrilled to stand here today as your Act Party Candidate for Pakuranga and to have this opportunity to talk with you about the state of technology and R&D in New Zealand… Not only because it is a subject that is absolutely central to our current - and future - prosperity, but also because it is a long-held passion of mine.

When I arrived in New Zealand over 28 years ago, I had the single aim of - besides creating a new family and a new life for me and my husband - becoming a scientist. 

It sounds a bit nerdy, isn’t it?

Now let me tell you about where this passion for science came from.  When I was very young, growing up in India… I overheard a conversation between my parents about a family friend who was dying and whose illness simply could not be cured.

As a 9-year-old, that made absolutely no sense to me!  After all, I’d only recently been sick myself… and Dad had taken me to see a doctor, where I was given an injection, and recovered within only a few days.  To me, that was magical.

I wondered why our friend couldn’t simply be given an injection like me.  I guessed that maybe it was because there weren’t enough doctors or enough injections to go around… and so I decided – there and then, at nine years old – that I would become a doctor, so that I too could hand out injections to help cure everyone’s illnesses.

Little did I know then that the true reason for my parents upset was that there was no cure for our friend’s illness and that it is scientists… not doctors… who find cures.

When that later became clear to me… Well, my course was set for life.

And looking back today… I have great fondness for that naïve young girl who thought she could save the world with injections.

To be frank, right now, New Zealand’s economy desperately needs an injection – And I like to think of ACT as the booster jab that could be the thing that saves this country!

Since doing a PhD in biological sciences from the University of Auckland, my working life has taken a few different directions… These have included running a family business… serving as a Families Commissioner… Leading an NGO helping victims of domestic violence… as a board member for Hospice Totara, and -I almost feel like I should whisper this- as a National MP!

Across all these endeavours, the skills I learnt studying science have held me in good stead.  I know the value of evidence-based research… Weighing up the facts before you take a decision… and I understand how important innovation and planning is to achieving success.  And I know the ACT Party doesn’t only share these values… It is built on them.

Nowhere has this been driven home to me more than in my business.  What began as a confectionary manufacturing business, changed over time to include a contract manufacturing business for local and international businesses in the health sector, exporting to countries like Australia, China, UK, Saudi Arabia, and the US.

I have learnt just how much the decisions of government impact on businesses and communities alike… and I have discovered how important it is to move with the times… keeping abreast of technological developments and innovating not simply to survive, but to ensure that my business - and everyone that it employs - can prosper.

Sadly, this is not a lesson our current government seems willing to take on board.

Now a days, whenever I attend a function or event, and find myself mingling with other businesspeople, our conversations are depressingly familiar.  Inevitably, we end up talking about the difficulties of attracting talent… the roadblocks set in our way when it comes to innovating… the challenges of being a small nation… and our lack of confidence that this government understands our problems… let alone possesses the ability to do something about them.

The politest word I can use to describe our government’s approach to R&D and technological development is… ‘piecemeal’

Labour in its first term promised to lift expenditure on R&D to 2% of GDP in 10 years.  In this, as with so many other promises it has made… the simple truth is that it has failed to deliver.

Right now, the sum of public and private expenditure on R&D sits at 1.47% of GDP… This is FAR below the OECD average and FAR below where we should be, if Labour was able to keep up with its promise.  Worse, the laws and administrative apparatus we have in place to support future R&D is not only- complex… but also hopelessly out-of-date. 

This isn’t just piecemeal… It is pathetic.

Recent history shows us that there is a DIRECT correlation between investment in R&D and economic success. The bright futures of countries like South Korea, Japan, and Switzerland are instructive here…  ALL of them investing well in excess of what we do. 

We are trying to compete with one hand tied behind our back by government.

Even when we compare ourselves against countries and economies of similar size to us… we are doing poorly.  Finland, for example, despite its proximity to the events in Ukraine and the hardships associated with that… ranks much higher than us across a range of variables relating to R&D. 

Its 2022 Global Index Ranking for Innovation sat at No.8.  Our ranking, on the other hand, has dropped steeply… from 13th in 2012 to 24th in 2022. 

This is the real cost of Labour’s incompetence.

In all this, we should not forget New Zealand has always been known for its innovation and we still have the capacity, both intellectually and economically, to turn things around.  The good news is – It is in our hands to fix it.

…  So it falls to us here in ACT to grab the steering wheel… And hit the gas!

All that’s required is a true commitment to R&D… One that goes far beyond the promises that were in the recent budget.

Because we are ACT, we don’t just oppose for its own sake…  We propose good solutions as well.

 Providing more ways of collaboration and investment in people is good, for example…. but what is going to happen to these people once they have done government-funded research fellowships?

The challenge is not that our researchers are not collaborating locally or internationally… or just that we need to train more people. But the real job we face is creating capacity in the private sector to absorb these skilled and trained people… because without that we will continue to lose them to more attractive opportunities overseas.  Labour don’t like to admit this – but it is a competition.

And for that we also need to lean more into providing a policy framework that allows for new ideas to flourish.  We need New Zealand to become an Incubator of excellence – and it CAN be done.

Our primary sector, for example, has long been the lifeblood of the New Zealand economy. We are known for innovation in the field of agriculture… but because the government has taken so much of it for granted, the rest of the world has surpassed us.

As a case in point, our laws in relation to genetic engineering – governed by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act - a piece of legislation which is now a quarter of a century old - is not only restrictive, but hopelessly out of date.

Unlike our cousins across the ditch, who updated their laws around 4 years ago regarding gene-edited food… Hazardous Substances and New Organism Act’s regulations mean that recent advances in gene editing – and let’s remember, this is a completely separate area to gene modification- remain closed to us.  What does that mean?  Technological stagnation… and more expensive food for Kiwis.

It is a bit like we’re stuck with the first iteration of the iPhone, whilst the rest of the world runs around with their iPhone 14 Pro.

These technologies can not only add efficiencies to our food and farming sector… but significantly contribute to our commitments around climate change too. 

And wouldn’t it be nice if, for once, New Zealand’s politicians contributed a bit more to real solutions to climate change, other than endless hot air?

Let me give you a real example…  The HME rye grass developed by a crown research institute, AgResearch, serves as a great example here.

Incredibly, initial research indicates this grass has the potential to increase production by 40%... Reduce water demand by 30%... and decrease methane emissions by 15-23%.  Sounds good, right?

Additionally, the potential GDP value, based on modelling which was done around the time when it came to field trial stage was in the range of $2 billion to $5 billion in additional revenue, should the grass be put into use.

You would imagine, with such positive outcomes, that developing this grass would be fast-tracked by the government…

Instead, quite the opposite has happened.

Our antiquated laws have precluded the grass from being trialled in NZ.

The point is -------If our Crown Research Institutes can’t be bothered with dealing with the current legislation to go through the process to seek approval for a field trail in first instance here in NZ, then why would the private sector bother when they have the whole world to choose from?

It is a sorry state of affairs.  And that is why, this year, we need Kiwis to choose real change.

Overall, biotechnology is definitely one of the most important technologies of the 21st century…. Keeping up with our competitors in this field is of fundamental importance to our future…. whether it is to improve productivity in our primary sector… tackle climate change or treating lethal diseases.  There is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ on these issues…  Only forward or back.  And only ACT has the boldness… the clarity… and the willingness to take this country forward.

We need to be evidence based and much bolder in our thinking than we are now…. Our very future depends upon it.

Thank you, my friends.

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