Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Is New Zealand Better Than Finland?

Gerry Brownlee, the leader of New Zealand's House of Representatives and the centre-right administration's third-ranking minister, caused quite a stir recently when he appeared to insult Finland during a speech.

Such was the uproar, that New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key ended up having to apologise to the Finnish president over the remarks.

It all kicked off when, on March 21st, Brownlee criticised the opposition's suggested economic policies aimed to make New Zealand “like Finland”. He claimed that the Nordic country had "worse unemployment than us, has less growth than us, can hardly feed the people who live there, has a terrible homicide rate, hardly educates their people and has no respect for women".

The remarks were immediately seized upon by various commentators who pointed out that:
  • Finland’s unemployment rate is only slightly higher than New Zealand’s (7.5% vs 6.3%)
  • Finland’s growth in recent years has been similar to New Zealand’s (1.8% vs 1.7% between 2004 and 2011) and in fact Finland grew faster grew faster in 2011 (2.9% vs 1.2%),
  • While Finland might not be a big agricultural nation, there are no food shortages in Finland
  • The intentional homicide rate was 2.0 per 100,000 people in Finland compared to 1.76 in New Zealand, so hardly worse
  • Finland leads the world in terms of education, and beats New Zealand in every key PISA scores
  • Finland was the first country in the world to grant women both the rights to vote and stand for parliament (1906). New Zealand granted the vote in 1893, but the right to stand for election didn’t come until 1919. Both Finland and New Zealand have had one female head of state and two female prime-minister in recent years, though unlike Finland’s head of state, New Zealand’s was not elected (Queen Elizabeth II)
In other words, Brownlee’s statements were patently either false or disingenuous. However, they did give Finland the chance to set the record straight, and as a result get some good publicity (well, apart from the homicide bit maybe)

Some commentators took it further though, attempting to make a case for Finland being superior to New Zealand, citing for example Finland’s greater GDP per Capita ($44,488 vs. $27,217 in 2011). A mildly amusing effort was put together by Finnish comedian Tuomas Enbuske:

I was a little bemused as to why New Zealand politicians would choose to discuss Finland of all countries. Thinking about it though, it occurred to me that there quite a few similarities between the two countries:
  • They are comparatively remote
  • They have a similar size (Finland is the 64th largest country in the world with 338,424 km2, New Zealand is 75th with 268,021 km2)
  • They have similar number of people (Finland is the 115th most populated country in the world with 5.4 million inhabitants, New Zealand is 122nd with 4.4 million)
  • Both countries were part on an empire (Russian for Finland, British for New Zealand)
  • Both have annoying neighbours to the West
  • The people of both countries are "outdoorsy" and fond of sport (I did notice that Finland trounces New Zealand in terms of medals at the Olympics – 299 including 101 gold between 1896 and 2008, versus 86 and 36 gold)
  • Finns and Kiwis are rather fond of alcohol, the former a bit more so than the latter: Finnish adult (15+) per capita consumption was 12.5 litres of pure alcohol on average (2003–2005), versus 9.6 for New Zealanders according to the World Health Organization
Mmmm, looks like I am at risk of proving that Finland is beats New Zealand on every front, including geographic size, population, Olympic success and even alcohol consumption. However, I am neutral in this debate, so just to redress the balance:

  • New Zealand has a lot more sheep than Finland (40 million vs 0.1 million)
  • New Zealand is much better at rugby (ranked 1st vs. 96th and last)
  • New Zealand has had bigger earthquakes (largest recorded 8.2 in 1855 vs. 4.7 in 1898)
  • New Zealand is generally warmer than Finland (highest temperature 42.4C/108.3F in 1973 vs. 37.2C/99F in 2010)
  • New Zealand has more volcanoes (over 60 active, dormant or extinct vs 0 – despite the UK's Daily Express’s 2010 headline "VOLCANO IN FINLAND SPARKS THREAT" or indeed what I claimed in an earlier blog-post)
  • New Zealand has the more successful movie director (Peter Jackson grossed $1,3billion vs. a lot less for Aki Kaurismäki)
Anyhow, enough of all this. Both countries are equally lovely and have equally lovely people. Vade in pace.


  1. Finland, in the US at least, has been getting quite a lot of media attention over the last two years or so. I think that's due to their relative success (particularly surrounding education and quality of life). Though the statistics you cite are similar (where are they from, by the way?), perhaps Gerry Brownlee has a bit of Finland envy!

    1. The stats are from all over the place. I considered putting links but then the post would have been full of them! Some from wikipedia (e.g. size of country, population), some from the IMF (GDP), some from the WHO (drinking), some from sports sites (e.g. International Rugby Board), etc. Others we quoted in various articles related to the Brownlee story. I had quite a lot of material, but I do try to keep the posts to a compact quick-read size!

    2. If you watch Brownlee's speech, the stats he quotes at the beginning are not funadmentally incorrect but his summary near the end of the speech (and which made the headlines) is where he gets is very wrong. He claims his speech was meant to be humourous and I am inclined to believe him when you actually see the clip.

    3. I think you're right, particularly given the chunk that you've quoted here. But, I have to admit that it's often hard for me to perceive humor when I see politicians proclaiming inflammatory untruths about other nations (see: Rick Santorum on the Netherlands).

    4. In Britain, the politicians are fond of saying something (health service, education, public transport, whatever) is "the envy of the world". As someone who travels I know that in most cases the world is usually at best indifferent about the matter.

  2. Finland beats NZ (again), this time in terms of happiness. The United Nation's "World Happiness Report" places Finland 2nd and NZ 8th (the UK was ranked 18th, probably because of family breakdown according to the Daily Mail, always campagining for a return to life as it never was).

  3. Yeah it seems like he was at least attempting to be humorous. It was a poor move though, especially in this day and age when everything is recorded, dissected and taken out of context. It seemed like he was intentionally embellishing to make a point. But on the other hand, as Elena points out in her example, we Americans get a lot of talk like that, whether it's Santorum talking about the Netherlands or Santorum talking about the University of California not offering American history courses (my alma mater where many of my friends were history majors) or when Rush Limbaugh talks about, well, anything. The problem being that, even if it is a joke or an embellishment (I don't think Santorum was joking), voters may take it as fact. Is this why people still think Obama is a secret muslim? Drink responsibly and Politick responsibly.

  4. ahem, who are you calling an annoying neighbour to the West, then?!

    I loved the rugby statistics. 96th and last is almost impressive.

    I would also hazard a guess at NZ being somewhat better at cricket than Finland. Marginally, at least. I mean, maybe they have actually heard of the game in NZ.

    1. Cricket? I have no idea what you are talking about (I grew up in France). But just for your sake, I just checked the ranking here and in typical cricket fashion, the scoring is clear as mud, with New Zealand ranked either 8th, 7th or 4th - at any rate ahead of Finland.

    2. The three different rankings are for three different types of cricket. They have different rules and need slightly different skills and the game duration is different too (5 days[yes!], 8 hours & 4 hours). Perhaps a bit like rugby union and league?

    3. cricket wise new zealand is 1000000000000000000000000000000000000 times better, I am indian so i know better abt this game then others. btw, i hve lived in finland .my guess woudl be new zealand is better overall,

  5. Replies
    1. Not the first time; New Zealand declared war on Finland on 7 December 1941.