26 July 2010

What world are we living in?

I was asked to address the above question for the Waitakere Wellbeing Collaboration Summit, 23 July 2010, and the following notes were written afterwards, summarising my presentation. Naturally, this is too big a question for one person to answer, but I decided to begin with the big issue of the present: the Recession. At the time of writing this, it is not really clear yet if the Recession won’t turn into a ‘double-dip’ event. Despite talk of recovery, things are still shaky. But, for the worst-off in our society, the Recession is definitely not over if they are still unemployed, or have given up hope of employment, or have had to settle for new employment that does not meet their needs after being made redundant. Official unemployment figures may have reduced lately, but the consequences of unemployment and low wages are still being felt by many people.

We know from our own observations in the community, as well as from income statistics, that economic inequality and relative rates of low-income increased from the late 1980s on. This trend abated in the late 2000s, partly thanks to Working for Families. At the time of writing, statistics covering the Recession were not yet available, but it is fairly predictable that the Recession would have widened the gaps some more again. The skilled middle-class workers will have weathered the storm reasonably well, but the impact of the rise in unemployment has adversely affected mostly the young, the lower-skilled and the Maori and Pacifica workforces.

We also know that there is a large productivity and income gap between New Zealand and Australia, and that’s why we are losing skilled people across the Tasman. Australia did not have a recession, in the strict technical sense, and so that economic gap will have become wider and the lure of better-paid jobs over there will become stronger.

From a wider viewpoint, the Recession was not just about a credit crisis affecting the financial services. It was also a symptom of the huge economic imbalance between the US and China, and the effect of this on New Zealand (and Australia too) is that we will increasingly become an economic outpost of China. In the past New Zealand has been a part of Britain’s economic empire, and then after WW2 came under the sway of American imperialism. But the power-balance is now shifting East, mainly towards China, but also India – and one should not overlook the rise of Brazil too. This means a shift in strategic power-relations for New Zealand, and a change in the cultures and politics that will come to influence us from abroad.

I also wanted to look at local politics. One of the things that most troubles me at the moment is the apparent willingness of central government to ‘ride rough-shod over’ (as the Prime Minister put it) local democratic governance. The way that the Auckland amalgamation was rammed through by legislation, often ignoring the outcomes of the Royal Commission’s consultations, and the sacking of Environment Canterbury are two examples. The Rugby World Cup 2011 Empowering Bill (currently at the select committee stage) is another example, as this Bill effectively would suspend many laws and processes governing local matters, and sweep aside the participative rights of local people, in favour of almost dictatorial executive powers to be granted to an appointed authority. I hope this Bill gets thrown out, but I fear that it may only be watered down a little, and it will set an example of how central government can get its own business and economic objectives met by decree, if it happens to see the need, and to ignore the principles of the Local Government Act (and other Acts) in the process.

In New Zealand generally, I am saddened at the extent to which people resort to blaming individuals for the outcomes that they suffer, and so refuse to look for solutions that can be shared in common. An example of this is the readiness to seek punitive actions against individuals who commit crimes, as if that were the solution, rather than to seek, in addition to penal remedies, a collective public response to the root causes. Some of us forget, for instance, that perpetrators and victims of crimes are not distinct classes of persons. Most perpetrators have also been victims, and public services to give young people a better start in life could help to prevent crime at the outset. Or, to give another example, if we assume that pedestrians injured on the roads are ‘careless’, then we have forgotten that good urban design and engineering could help prevent such incidents in the first place.

The City that Auckland is about to become has been presented to us as if it were little more than an economic commodity in a competitive global marketplace: a place to attract investment, to move bodies and things around more efficiently, and to soak up the tourists’ dollars. But our City is much more than that. It is our home, the place in which we meet others, the place where we grow up and eventually die, and the location of many of our memories. We need to reclaim not just the local governance of our City, but also its very meaning.

Let’s not forget, though, that New Zealand is a high-trust society. We are still able to rely on matters being relatively well regulated and transparent. You don’t have to bribe officials to get things done here. We are a relatively tightly-knit community among which networks are close and social connections are easily established. New Zealanders do continue to participate on a voluntary basis in all kinds of activities. The talk tends to be about the decline of community, but we should recall that there is still a lot of so-called social capital out there. We do have many people in our communities who are willing and able to make a difference – and who are actually doing so. There are many more who, with a bit of support, might come out and take leadership roles or contribute something extra. New Zealanders seem to me to be people who are concerned about their community and who willingly organise around collectively agreed roles. Cynicism, fear and apathy have not taken over, and events such as the Waitakere Wellbeing Collaboration Summit are the living evidence of it.

Thinking, then, about the world we are living in, there were three questions that I put to the Summit, hoping that they might be questions that the audience would find stimulating. First, I asked whether the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights would eventually carry more weight than the Treaty of Waitangi. While the Treaty has a huge role in our constitutional history and in our contemporary law and politics, we also know that it was hastily drafted and badly translated, and many of its words are now outdated (for example, ‘British subjects’ in Article 3). The UN Declaration is very far-reaching, and has broader provisions than the Treaty. Furthermore, it has been developed and written, with great care, in the context of international relations. Admittedly, a UN Declaration has no binding effect on New Zealand’s domestic law – but neither does the Treaty, in fact. I suggest, then, that the Declaration will eventually supercede and become more effective than the Treaty.

Secondly, I asked when will we learn to design civility into our urban landscapes? – as distinct from designing it out. It saddens me to see what we have done to Albany, to see the hideous buildings that have been permitted in central Auckland, and to see how motorways have carved the heart out of so much of the City. Too often, the structures and environments that have been ‘planned’ force us to pass one another by at speed, or leave us with no way to say hello to one another, or give us no public place to gather, to celebrate, to protest, or just to hang out casually in a safe and convivial atmosphere. Environments that do work well socially tend, ironically, to be places that have older buildings (or, as parks, no buildings at all) and have been spared too much attention from planners and developers! If, on the other hand, all of the places where people congregate are commercial malls, and the only public spaces are roads, then the City physically excludes us from our fullest rights and liberties as citizens who participate in public events and in voluntary social organization.

Thirdly, I asked when will child poverty become a hot political issue? The income statistics tell us clearly that children are the age-group most likely to be living in a household with low income; and indeed, the presence of children is the predominant demographic characteristic of low-income households. We know that poverty affects children’s development permanently, at the most vulnerable developmental stage in life; and it is obvious that the child has no control over the source and quantity of household income. The long-term health, educational and economic outcomes for those raised in relative poverty tend to be disadvantageous, and we, as a society, suffer the consequences collectively, no matter how hard we try to ignore the problem or to blame the parents. Child poverty is, in my eyes, the most shameful fact about contemporary New Zealand society. And politicians have tended to ignore the issue, or to avoid doing anything serious about it. I think this is changing now, but it is not helped when people drag red herrings across the trail by saying ‘Ah, but it depends on what you mean by poverty!’ or talking about rich people who don’t spend time with their children as a kind of poverty. Such quibbles, which I think are aimed at challenging materialism, are valid in a way; but they also distract our attention from the hard issues of real material disadvantage, with long-term negative social outcomes, for perhaps about one quarter of our children, especially Maori and Pacifica children.

Connected with the problem of child poverty is a whole complex of other issues, ranging from parenting skills, employment skills, community facilities, substance abuse, and so on. Listening to the discussions at the Summit impressed upon me how highly aware the participants were about the interconnectedness of such issues. People were constantly making connections, and seeking to see things holistically. For example, there was talk about the connections between physical activity and mental health, about the social benefits of sports participation, about the implications of housing for health and for social belonging, and so on. Around many different topics, the need to support or up-skill parents was identified as a basic need. This included, for example, the need for parents to relearn how to play with their children. Challenges like this have very direct implications for all of us. The discussions were very wide-ranging and creative, and the consciousness of the participants appeared to be holistic and lateral-thinking.

Alongside those positive and creative thoughts, though, was the realistic identification of barriers. Economic barriers and intangible social barriers (such as ‘unsafeness’ or discrimination) were identified, and they tended to pose moments of pessimism on the discussions. Naming such barriers is the first step to overcoming them, but they can also seem to be too big for a community to deal with. Perhaps, I wondered, we should just decide that nothing is too big for a community, if there is a will to work together.

Overall, then, I was really impressed with the scope of practical ideas that were being offered around a huge range of community issues: food security, time-banking, literacy, physical activity, housing, etc. It was an honour to be invited to address and to participate in the Summit.


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