Thursday, April 12, 2012

A ‘new’ fair creative New Zealand for all – or National’s ‘brighter future’ for the wealthy.

Time for 'new' thinking?

A few thoughts about future directions.

David Shearer, leader of the opposition, recently outlined his vision for a ‘new’ New Zealand saying it was time to challenge assumptions about all aspects of life that we take for granted.

It was a start but it needs to move beyond rhetoric.

The big question is what sort of country do we want to seen as?  England of the South Pacific – but better, fairer and more egalitarian? These were the thoughts of early colonists escaping a class society of the very rich and very poor.

At the turn of the last century New Zealand was seen as leading the world in liberal causes - the first country to give woman the vote. After the great depression, when conservative thinking was unable to solve the difficulties that had emerged, new thinking emerged represented by a reforming Labour Government and, once again, New Zealand led the way in developing a society that gave a fair deal to all citizens with its welfare reforms.

By the end of the 70s winds of change were in the air and worldwide governments broke away from the political consensus that had developed since WW2. Voices were spreading the message that the ‘socialist’ state philosophies ('nanny states') had run their course and new vitality was required – the introduction of free market ideology in the US and the UK led to its introduction in New Zealand – ironically by a Labour Government – ‘Rogernomics’ had arrived.

And this philosophy is still in place and being pursued with a renewed enthusiasm by the National Government with its asset sales and public/private enterprises in areas such as prisons and schooling.

David Shearer needs to outline a real alternative to this individualistic capitalism and move New Zealand back to valuing the common good; to create a New Zealand where all people feel part of, and are able to contribute, to rather than just the extreme rich.

The growing gap between rich and poor, making solidarity and a sense of community more difficult, cannot continue without unfortunate consequences resulting.  The time has come for some new thinking. While the few rich lives of luxury the burden is falling on the bottom ranks of taxpayers. New Zealand is moving back to the rich poor divide of the Victorian Era early colonists sailed 12000 miles to escape from. Now they escape to Australia.

New Zealand is now one of the most unequal countries in the OECD backed up by some of the worst social statistics of any country. We are no longer ‘Godzone’.  It is now common for our politician to talk of an ‘underclass’ without accepting their part in its development – or taking responsibility for the school ‘achievement tail’ by simply blaming teachers. People it seems are almost accepting of such an underclass as a natural situation – part of the price ‘we’ have to pay.

This  inequality needs to be considered alongside  the findings of the book ‘The Spirit Level’ which links inequality to higher crime, ill health and a range of negative social issues. Northern European countries, where well-being of all people is achieved by paying tax as a price for civilization, needs to be studied – Finland in education for example.

It is now time for politicians to debate again the need for the just distribution of income and wealth that has been lost since the 1970s. It is time to fight for democratic rights of all people to feel part of New Zealand - and not just for the extreme rich, the corporate society, to have all the advantages – the very situation the early colonists sought to escape from. The rich now live in a world of their own making – one that excludes the less fortunate who have to pay for shrinking services they once received of as a benefit of living in this country.

The quality of life for the vast majority has been hollowed out by the policies of the last few decades. The shared sense of community has all but gone – revived only by the brief but exciting Rugby World Cup – a modern day version of the Roman Circus. One can only imagine the consequences if we had lost!

We do need a ‘new’ New Zealand for all not just a ‘brighter future’ for the rich.

I think we are talking about culture.  Culture can amplify or limit our potentials. Not all cultures are equal. What sort of culture, or society, do we want to become? At the moment an individualistic inspirational ‘market forces’ thinking has become our default culture.

A ‘new’ New Zealand culture needs to keep the best of the virtues and values of the past and down play selfish individualistic beliefs that are distorting our current culture. We need to work towards develops greater social cohesion and sense of shared community.  We are not as relentlessly self centred as we have been encouraged to be; we also have a need to work with and help others.  Selfish individualism will end up by destroying the best in us.

First we need to appreciate what it is we want to replace. ‘Neo conservative’ market forces beliefs are all about liberating the individual to be entrepreneurial, to create the wealth that would ‘trickle down’ to assist all. The welfare society had to be replaced to allow this release of energy  based on the primacy of private property and influence over state ‘straightjackets’.

And at the time it seemed ‘there was no alternative’ (TINA).

What eventuated were businesses being freed from regulations to create enterprises to be judged by share market value not contribution to society. Businesses themselves became commodities to be bought and stripped. Financial deals became more important than manufacturing something. Executive became overpaid and increasingly unethical.

Competition was seen to be the key not cooperation and collaboration

Collective state organisations were sold off and privatized – railways, post offices and now power companies again.

Minimal regulation allowed financial organisations and banks to loan money unwisely. Private debt soared.

Working practices favoured the employers and trade unions were demonized. Job security was lost and part time work became the norm for many – or unemployment.

Tax cuts favoured the rich – tax shifted to the poor to support the rich. Tax was seen as the state stealing from us rather than the price we pay for civilization.

In schools, and other organizations, under the guise of efficiency and choice, a culture of performance and comparison developed creating ‘winners and losers’ on doubtful data.

All this created a culture of greed and ‘me first’ – an obsession with winning.

The ‘trickle down’ theory is now a myth. Real wages fell and mums and dads had to both work to keep up with the rampant consumerism required by the market forces ideology. Materialist values (along with debt) became central to our identity – supported by a flood of advertising.

Working together for the common good has been downplayed – if only because people have little spare time.

So it seems David Shearer has a lot to do if he is to present an alternative vision to give us all something to buy into.

But the time is right as free market beliefs are losing their gloss. The dark side of a National’s selfish ‘aspirational’ society’ is showing its cracks. A society of few winner and growing losers is worrying. The wellbeing of the many must be placed ahead of the wealthy few. The promised ‘level playing field’ was another failed myth. Do we want to return to the Victorian class society again?

There must more to purpose in life that to get ahead at the cost of others.  There is a growing sympathy for those who lack the opportunity and social capital of the rich to make a full contribution to tap into. The ‘aspirational’ middle income families have not realized the riches they were promised.

An understanding that education is the key to developing a caring, tolerant society – and an education premised on realizing the gifts and talents of all students not just the academic students from acceptable backgrounds is vital. We need an education that is ‘personalized’ not ‘standardized’; one based on collaboration and sharing not narrow school comparison on doubtful data. We need a strong emphasis on ensuring all children are given every opportunity in the first years of their lives.

A new culture must balance the energy of entrepreneurial individuals and organisations with respect for the common good.

Infrastructure need to be developed to encourage the creative and innovative to develop sustainable and high touch industries

The tired state public service must be revived (or re-established) with only one goal to create conditions for all citizens to be respected and to grow. Free market philosophers were right - the welfare state had become encased in red tape but an enlightened public bureaucracy is still necessary to protect citizens from the ravages of the rich. The world left to the whim of the corporate ‘wizards’ has come to an end with the 2008 financial crisis when social welfare had to be provided to bail them out.

We need to create healthy communities based on caring, creativity, relationship and connections.

Maybe it is even time to re-look at the balance between local and central government? Provincial government lost impetus when communications improved in New Zealand and also because the resources of provinces was unfair. Market forces ideology believes in small government and increased private enterprise. Perhaps it all needs looking at. We need more local self determination  by pushing decision making down to the lowest levels within agree national guidelines. Maybe more integrated regional government which integrates (to a degree at least) fragmented services such as health, education, welfare, fire services, police and other central state agencies.  This is in opposition of current moves by central government to restrict local government to essential services only. Of course all this would require the tax base to be shared. It would certainly liven up local politics!

What a reforming opposition/government should consider is creating a three horizon vision (1) an ideal but too difficult to achieve now vision (2)   a second horizon of possible vision ideas that could work and lead to an ideal with time, and (3) actions that are possible now – also leading to a changed future. Without an ideal horizon immediate actions are too heavily influenced by the stultifying power of the present.

What David Shearer should be articulating is a new form of ‘caring capitalism’ that ‘allows all boats to float on a rising tide’.  Free market ‘selfish’ capitalism has had its turn, at least, like cod liver oil, it cleaned out the system!

A good start might be to set up a non political (or mixed political) group of respected citizens to develop a range of future scenarios outlining the consequences and costs of each and then to become involved in series of national conversations about New Zealand’s’ future. The late Sir Paul Callaghan would have made an idea leader of such a group.

Political parties could then take a stand on the scenarios they would want to implement.

It is time to renew our culture once again.

We need new thinking, old communal  values, new perceptions and new priorities – a culture of responsibility for others and our environment.

We need to create a vision of New Zealand as a country that liberates the gifts and talents of all citizens in a fair, caring, creative and tolerant society

It’s time for a creative, ‘caring’ capitalism to return to New Zealand.

Just  thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Good thinking Bruce - anyone listening?

Bruce said...

Probably not - just sorting out my own thinking. Anyway nothing very original.

Allan Alach said...

Totally agree, Bruce. How does it feel to keep banging your head against the wall of government insensibility? Ideology over evidence, that's for sure.