Picking up the pieces, starting now

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    Although Jacinda Ardern has already given a sequence of powerful, constructive and generous-spirited speeches that have – for many of us at least – articulated a radically new culture in central government, it seems our media can barely get past women’s-magazine treatment for our Prime Minister.

    No-one was counting when John Key was holidaying with his family in their $5.6 million Hawaiian pad, so whether Clarke Gayford will make a good stay-at-home father or the poised and incisive Jacinda herself can juggle their work life balance is a rather idiotic level of commentary. 

    Statistically, a first pregnancy across the ‘middle New Zealand’ demographic is the beginning of that grinding household austerity known as ‘single income’. The state signals it with a derisory allowance that doesn’t outlast the child’s projectile vomiting stage at which point your options for ongoing motherhood are either starvation rations and the end of life as you’ve known it or a regime of guilt-ridden work to pay for child-care or a live-in au pair, either of which will give the lion’s share of the joy and the milestones of the most precious bundle you’ve ever held to someone else. 

    However, it’s nothing New Zealand women haven’t been dealing with, unsung, for fifty years and for millennia before that. Clock up epic housing shortages and an unconscionable ratio between stagnant wage levels and rent or mortgage costs and it’s what you get.

    In terms of her own history, Jacinda related to – and was frequently out-spoken on behalf of – the generations that had given up hoping for home ownership, long before she was prime minister. 

    Leadership is the easily-underestimated art of starting with the end in sight; of clearly enumerating the goals so that the collective unit (whether a human community or a flock of birds) is enrolled and engaged in the direction it is going in and committed to measurable agreed outcomes.

    However, in western-style politics, it has been functionally extinct for generations of citizens who have reached maturity without ever having actually experienced it or seen what it looks like in action. 

    This may account for our slowness off the mark in getting in behind Jacinda’s disarmingly simple goal of New Zealand being a great place to live – for everyone. 

    During their lifetime to date, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and many western governments have told the world’s billions that free markets are good, that protecting industries is bad and that bailing out failing companies is an ineffective way to help workers, consumers and the economy itself.

    We quickly realized there were alternatives when governments suddenly exhibited a startling willingness to bail out the biggest banks in the world when they’d effectively slaughtered their own golden goose. So why not manufacturers and workers struggling at the coalface with the same problems? Why did banks get access to resources we as a society might prefer to give to health? Or genuinely free education as a birthright? 

    It’s only the lingering culture of disentitlement, particularly of the young, that says it is  perfectly normal to regulate large swathes of citizens’ personal lives but impossible to regulate banks or collect taxes from the wealthiest.

    Author Richard Denniss says in Curing Affluenza, “the world is full of alternatives to corporate capitalism but it will be hard to reform free-market capitalism while we cannot be sure exactly what it is and which bits of it are worth keeping.

     “The idea that there is no alternative to free-trade agreements that undermine national regulatory standards, to corporate tax cuts and to lower wages is clearly contradicted by the recorded history of every developed country. 

    “Similarly the fact that the most prosperous countries in the world have some of the largest public sectors, some of the highest tax rates and some of the highest wages in the world tends to confirm not just the existence of alternatives, but their success,” he says.

    Economist, feminist and former New Zealand MP Professor Marilyn Waring concluded from her study of the UN’s GDP measure and its tenuous relationship to wellbeing that “ultimately decisions and trade-offs have to be made by informed and well-intentioned parliamentarians who have been elected by well-informed citizens”.

    Behind the prime-ministerial pinnie and barbie tongs that dominated the news of a transformed Waitangi Day this week is a good brain and a compelling voice for wholesome change. 

    Providing for  “well informed citizens” isn’t so hard, either.  

    How many of us have read the transcripts of the Prime Minister’s speeches to the nation so far? Almost certainly not enough. Drawing conclusions from the media’s often-suspect headlines doesn’t count.  Yet the full transcripts can be on your home computer screen in five minutes; three when you get better at it.

    Government and legislation can restore values, improve the government’s revenue stream and redistribute resources equitably. However, the essential change in culture to meaningful participation from all of us has to come from the ground upwards.  • Liz Waters

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