Thursday 18th April 2019
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Former Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Secretary-General for the Commonwealth, Sir Don McKinnon, are throwing their political capital and global profile behind the establishment of the New Zealand chapter of a respected US-based think tank, the Aspen Institute.
"Based in Queenstown, Aspen Institute NZ is a non-partisan and non-ideological organisation focused on education and policy," said inaugural director, Christine Maiden Sharp. "Its mission is to foster leadership to contribute to the development of both New Zealand society and globally".
Headquartered in Washington DC and chaired by the Clinton-era US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, the institute claims 11 locations globally and operations in 14 countries, of which New Zealand is the latest. Each branch is self-funding but the identities of key donors are not disclosed.
A clue to the calibre of its backing, however, is the presence of NBR Rich Lister and Dunedin commercial big-foot Sir Eion Edgar on the nine-member Aspen Institute NZ board. Maiden Sharp's LinkedIn profile also carries endorsements from Marc Holtzman, a politically connected, Hong Kong-based American banker who owns property in the Gibbston Valley.
The institute intends to run a programme of "forums to encourage constructive dialogue on critical issues that matter to New Zealanders and for all New Zealanders”, Maiden Sharp said in a statement.
It ran an inaugural seminar for key supporters in Queenstown this week on artificial intelligence. It was moderated by globally recognised AI and robotics expert, Neil Jacobstein, who is joining the board.
“Aspen Institute NZ’s top priority is encouraging young New Zealanders and individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate in and shape meaningful dialogue. We plan to focus on climate change, technology, and inequality/intolerance in our first three years. That will include people from all walks of life, as well as New Zealand and international topic experts.”
Clark, who recently started her own New Zealand-focused policy think tank, the Helen Clark Foundation, said Aspen's local chapter will "help raise the standard of debate on issues that matter most to New Zealanders, provide access to an extraordinary global network and enable current and future leaders to contribute to new ideas on key issues on a world stage".
McKinnon said "there is no forum like it for long-term policy discussions".
"The international name Aspen is a draw card and New Zealand is a well-respected democratic society. This will be a step up for New Zealand’s international engagement."
In the statement, Albright welcomed the New Zealand chapter to the Aspen fold, saying the country had "inspired us all by showing resilience and a commitment to democratic values in the face of hate", in a clear reference to the March 15 terrorist attacks on mosques in Christchurch.
McKinnon will chair the nine-member board, of which his co-patron, Clark, is not a member.
Other board members include Sir Maarten Wevers, former head of the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet during the Clark and Key eras, Federated Farmers chair Katie Milne, Lisa Tumahai, kaiwhakahaere - chair- of the South Island's Ngai Tahu iwi, Sport NZ chair Bill Moran, and Jane Taylor, a barrister and professional director who chairs Christchurch electricity network Orion NZ, the Predator Free 2050 initiative, government science agency Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, and is deputy chair of Radio New Zealand.
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