The Overton window is the range of ideas the public is willing to consider and accept — ideas a politician could successfully campaign on. This window of opportunity shifts over time, subject to the trends of social thought and norms and all social reform movements have to shift the Overton window to make progress.
We’re losing it guys. The Overton window of political discourse – jammed shut for decades by the rigid dogma of market forces and a skinny, hands-off state – suddenly gaped wide open, first during the Covid lockdowns and then the national election in October. Political restoration of the concept of state and governance for the common good was both allowed and desirable.
It was about time. As a country, we had the most unaffordable housing in the developed world. We had also, more than most, embraced the laissez faire concept of winners and losers central to neo liberalism 30 years ago. Real wages had stalled for decades and someone had nicked off with our social welfare.
The more or less universal Family Benefit which my generation capitalised on to build or buy a family home in which to raise children had been swapped for grudging ‘benefits’ and low wages. Welfare support for the most vulnerable including mental health support was choked off. State housing stocks were raided and died from lack of maintenance or importance.
For a decade, the Auckland supercity leadership has seemed to want a medal for cramming an extra 800 people a week into its sprawling bulk without spending a dime on appropriate housing or community development.
Infrastructure was for trucks, not people.
All that was the result of an Overton window of political and social thinking jammed shut on a stuffy and unhealthy capitalist society.
Then a breath of fresh air blew through.
The world’s richest men were telling us to tax them more. The greediest global corporations were getting bad press for endemic tax evasion. The government’s wage subsidy kept money in circulation and small businesses with their staff and a fighting chance of surviving.
We could print government money to put in the hands of working citizens so they could live, feed, educate and house their families as a basic, aspirational human right. We could do that.
This appetite for wider political rebalancing showed up during the election but was already showing signs of an impending perfect storm and the urgency has faded instead of galvanising urgent, dynamic action to empower our collective resilience.
The post-Covid maths of having additional tens of thousands of returning Kiwis and entitled residents flooding into an Auckland already on its knees with housing shortages for its existing, and particularly low wage, citizens was never going to add up.
As always, it shows up most vividly in small places that don’t quite fit the macro equations of centralised politics. Like us. Already, long-time islanders whose homes have sold in hours are now literally heading for the hills elsewhere. Bombay, the Northland coast, Nelson, “down south”.
And the cruel diaspora, especially of young families, is going to be doubly devastating given the resulting rental shortages – the worst we have ever seen – the rental pool seeming to have shrunk overnight.
Worryingly, the hurricane is now upon us and Auckland’s sweep of new politicians as well as its mayor and the supercity’s local government leaders seem remarkably AWOL, beavering away in their silo city offices oblivious to the outside world.
What use is a 30-year city council plan for our own island if it takes no notice of the very real possibility that Waiheke’s vibrancy and small-is-beautiful agility as a working community model is decimated and our workforce for the summer lucky to find a flat paddock to put up tents?
Or if the only meaningful objective of all that secret bureaucratic industry behind closed doors is to fold Waiheke into a privileged, lucrative and pliant urban setting; the Hamptons of the South Pacific.
Already the extortionate planning regime the city has applied to the island in recent years has allowed only a handful of high-end houses to be added to our housing stock. It’s not a nice trajectory.
The fact remains that we none of us know how well we will weather the coming economic storms, Covid aftershocks and a climate emergency that’s been howling in the rooftops for decades.
The quiet Earth of the Covid lockdown gave us a taste of what a more generous and less brutally unequal world would feel like. We can use the opportunity. Or lose it. • Liz Waters