With apologies to Oscar Wilde, the National Government currently is avoiding a policy that dare not speaks its name, and certainly is considered an offensive world in ‘better circles’. It is Inequality.
When John Key was recently challenged that inequality had increased under his watch he quoted the economist Brian Easton when stating that inequality has remained largely unchanged over the last 20 years and that the big change occurred under Rogernomics and Ruthanasia (though he didn’t phrase it quite like that). He then went on to state the things that National had done to improve the lot of the poor: inoculations to combat rheumatic fever (caused by substandard housing); charter schools and new teacher levels (privatisation of education); and his most popular, on all occasions when poverty is mentioned – insulation of homes (a Green Party policy).
In fairness his response has been better than his ministers. Bill English returned from the conference in Davos where Inequality was one of the main agenda items, and widely talked about in the press overseas, but failed to mention it at all in his summary. On other occasions he has denied the existence of inequality in NZ. Paula Bennett meantime does not recognise child poverty in NZ because it is not measured properly, though she is not prepared to arrange for it to be so measured. She talks of NZ having relative rather than absolute poverty, which I am sure is of little comfort for the relatives of the 100 people (including children) who die of 3rd world diseases in NZ each year.
Is it right?
Though I would argue that asset sales, personal tax cuts and increased GST has contributed to increased inequality in NZ even if it has failed to move our position in the OECD tables, maintaining the status quo is not something to be proud of, for John Key or previous Governments of the last two decades.
When Quakers first started talking amongst their members about the morality of holding slaves, some answered that it had always been such and besides they treated their slaves well (which they did). Over time Quakers and eventually those in power were persuaded that it wasn’t a question of ‘it’s always been like this’ but rather ‘is it right’?
In the late Victorian era, and again in the mid-1930’s citizens persuaded their Governments that a more equal society was the right thing to do. That all children should have the opportunity of being fed, clothed and raised in a warm, healthy home with access to truly free education and health services. Society prospered because a more evenly distributed wealth was more readily spent than the earlier gilded ages when the rich largely hoarded their gains.
Say it out loud
The first step in NZ is for all our political parties to recognise that the current inequalities are unacceptable and harming all of us. They need to all say out loud “We have inequality, and it needs to be reduced”. As in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the parties should and will have alternative ways of achieving greater equality, but they all need to work towards it.
One policy that will not work alone is “creating an environment for more jobs”. During the last 20 years we have had periods of high and low employment. Neither improved equality, as John Key himself said.