This week, Colombo will see representatives of 70 political parties, drawn from 56 countries, gather for a meeting of the International Democrat Union executive. The world's largest alliance of centre-right political parties, the conference will no doubt see many topics be debated. However, economic policy will be one area that is foremost among our discussions.
Providing economic security for our citizens is a central - perhaps the central - challenge that governments around the world face today. The ability to hold down secure work, provide for your family and build a better future for your children are timeless aspirations that are as true in Auckland as they are in Anuradaphura. But in the current global context - with Chinese growth slowing down, the Middle East facing significant threats and the pace of recovery in Europe slackening - the challenge for governments to provide that security for our people is more acute than ever. Here in Sri Lanka, enjoying the spring of peace after many years of war and turbulence, the challenge is more urgent still.
Our respective parties are celebrating similar anniversaries this year; the United National Party of Sri Lanka its 70th year and the National Party of New Zealand its 80th. Throughout our existence our parties have both been guided by some simple values when it comes to the economy. They aren't abstract theories or immovable tracts, they are the things we teach our children: people who can work should; a honest day's work should always be rewarded with a honest day's pay; everyone should have the same opportunities no matter where they come from.
Of course, Sri Lanka and New Zealand are at different stages of development. Equally, our governments are at different stages of their existence. But both our governments subscribe fully to these values - and have put them at the heart of our economic plans.
Take job creation. All people who can work should have the ability to earn a regular wage and provide for their families. One of the best ways to deal with the cost of living is to get more people into work, and in turn help those currently in low paid jobs into higher paid ones. In recent years, New Zealand's government has brought over 350 initiatives together in a Business Growth Agenda to grow the economy, expand business and create jobs in critical, high skill areas. That plan is working with almost a quarter of a million jobs added to New Zealand's economy and the unemployment rate at a seven year low.
Sri Lanka has similar ambitions with a plan to create one million new jobs by the year 2020. It was heartening to see the IMF conclude recently that Sri Lanka's 'recent economic performance has been positive in a number of respects' with real terms GDP growth of 5.2 per cent in the first three quarters of 2015. We also welcome the recent statement by George Soros, visiting Colombo in January, that Sri Lanka is an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment.
But there is still a long way to go to create the jobs that the Sri Lankan people need. More needs to be done to encourage foreign investors to come here. Total trade between our two countries, for example, stands at Rs 31 billion on current estimates but it could be far higher. Part of the strategy here must be to bring about tax and regulation reform: making it easier and cheaper to start a business and grow a business. The upcoming Investment Bill will attempt to do just that, as will new laws that make it easier for foreigners to own property here in Sri Lanka.
Equally, a process of national reconciliation is important so that all ethnic groups are able to participate fully in the new economy that is being built. This will include a Truth Commission modelled on the architecture set up in South Africa in the 1990s, as well as a Compassionate Council by the leading clergy of all the religions - Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
Just as critically, job opportunities will only come to this island if investors have confidence in the Sri Lankan economy and believe that their money is safe. That is why the new National Government has taken a fundamentally different approach to those who came before: making a solemn commitment to abide by the rule of law - and stay faithful to Article 157 of the constitution which binds Sri Lankan governments to respect international agreements and norms concerning economic development.
There are other areas where our governments have much in common too. There is an old Sri Lankan proverb that roughly translated into English means: 'education is an indestructible form of wealth'. We both fully agree with this sentiment and have put investing in education at the heart of our plans for prosperity. In New Zealand, education is the third largest area of government expenditure. Here in Sri Lanka, the United National Party intends to build an education system that will last thirteen years and restrict the number of children in a classroom to 35. Importantly too, the government intends to remove taxes paid on all books.
Just as important is infrastructure fit for the centuries ahead. A few weeks ago, Independence Square in Colombo saw the inauguration of the Megapolis project: a $40 billion development plan to transform Colombo and the Western Province into one of the most economically powerful cities in the world, rivalling cities such as Dubai and Singapore. The benefits of this project in the years to come will be vast: creating better paid jobs, improving housing and transport - and underlines the commitment of the government here in Sri Lanka to plan for the long term.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, much celebrated at the International Democrat Union and one of the world's most distinguished centre-right leaders, once spoke of her approach to government in the following terms: 'plan your work for today and everyday, then work your plan'. In the current global context, that sentiment rings especially true. There are no quick fixes to the challenging economic headwinds of today, just hard work, patient resolve and a credible plan to deliver the economic security that people need. That is what our governments will continue to do, building a better and brighter future for the people of Sri Lanka and New Zealand too. (M.H.)