Last year, Kiwis were upset when a British newspaper described our ‘100% Pure’ image as false, siting reports about the quality of water in our rivers and around our beaches. It was an outrage. Surely ‘clean, green and egalitarian’ were synonymous with New Zealand?
John Key’s reaction was to say, on the contrary, that everyone knew that “100% pure” and “Clean, Green New Zealand” were marketing and that no one really believed it. Yet, like our egalitarian society, many of us do believe it. Though, sadly nowadays, this too is an illusion.
For us these descriptions are still an important part of who we are (or believe we are) and if we fall short we should be doing everything that we can to put them right.
Dean Baker, an American Economist, said “Inequality did not just happen, it was deliberately engineered through a whole range of policies intended to redistribute income upwards.”
This was certainly the case in Aotearoa New Zealand.
NZ Economist, Brian Easton, in an article in the Listener on 10 October, 2013 stated that “In 1985, we were in the bottom half of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of inequality; 10 years later, we were in the top half. Inequality has not changed much since then, but New Zealand is no longer an egalitarian society.” He went on that “…almost all the increase in our economic inequality stems from the reductions in the effectiveness of the redistribution system as a result of the lower taxes on the rich introduced by Rogernomics and of the benefit cuts under Ruthanasia.”
Yet the illusion of our egalitarian society has been so entrenched that most are happy to accept John Key’s assertion that those in poverty have made a ‘lifestyle choice’. Most accept that low pay is a result of ‘market forces’ and ‘lack of drive in its recipients’, rather than Reserve Bank policies ensuring constant unemployment and legislation undermining (and often prohibiting) Unions to function properly, if at all.
Up until the mid-1980’s, regardless of our finances or position in the community, we mainly lived in the same suburbs and went to the same schools. New Zealand was much closer to an egalitarian society though the sharing with Maori and Pacific Islanders was still a work in progress.
In those days ministers would not have got away with claiming certain groups were shirkers, lazy, or a drain on society because our lives were so intermingled. Besides, there was a general belief in the need for us to care for each other and grow together.
That changed with Rogernomics, when it was no longer about “we” but purely about “me”. While the lucky few shot ahead, our unskilled and semi-skilled workers became tossed on the scrap heap, as their jobs went overseas.
The middle (or skilled and office) classes maintained the illusion of prosperity by a greater ability to borrow. We ignored tomorrow unless we were suddenly presented with a redundancy notice and the realization that our world would collapse in less than 12 weeks.
Now the unscathed, in Ivory Towers (whether held freehold or with huge mortgages), erect higher fences and tougher laws to keep the less deserving away. They accept the mantra that our richest need more to encourage them to work harder while our poorest deserve less to achieve the same ends.
Social ills the consequence of inequality
We now have some of the highest levels of social problems in the developed world: drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancies, imprisonment, and infant mortality. All these have been associated with the huge increase in the gap in income between our richest and poorest, which ranked us 20th out of 34 OECD countries in 2010 for income equality.
As Brian Easton asserted, the changes that caused this took place over 10 years. The rest has been a concerted action to maintain those changes.
With ‘inequality’ firmly on the political agenda in a number of countries, including NZ, it is important that we all do what we can to make sure that it is a central platform in the upcoming elections.
Clean, green and egalitarian must no longer be historical claims that we hang on to, but a living reality now and for our children and grandchildren. It is time to close the chasm between the have too much and the have not’s.