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For Richer, For Poorer

Dame Anne Salmond

The three Briefing Papers posted today were written by Professor Anne Salmond of the University of Auckland in response to what she describes as the Slippery Slope of Democracy in New Zealand. The first paper was written in the wake of Dirty Politics, the book released by Nicky Hager that has dominated the 2014 election campaign. The second paper was written in July 2013 and the third dates back to October 2011. What these papers address is a deeply held concern with the state of democratic government in New Zealand and a noticeable decline over the past several years in the integrity of government.

 


 

October 2011

The international rating agencies have done all New Zealanders a favour. The double downgrade of the country’s credit rating makes it clear that the policies and philosophies promoted by successive governments are not working.

The ‘invisible hand’ of the market, first conceived in the Enlightenment but coupled at that time with notions of justice, human dignity and ‘the rights of man’, has failed to deliver prosperity and happiness, in New Zealand as elsewhere.

The problem, it seems, is a loss of balance. In the pursuit of profit, every thing in the world – the earth itself, other species, knowledge and indeed, other people – has been turned into a ‘resource’ to be exploited, often without care or conscience.

In the process, ideas of justice, truth and the common good have been undermined. Without these bulwarks, democracy falters, capitalism fails to share wealth and the distribution of income shifts dangerously out of kilter.

As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, ‘No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.’ Since the 1980s, however, the gap between the top 10% of income earners and the bottom 50% in many nations has become a chasm. In New Zealand, income inequality has soared.

The failure of so many finance companies due to greed, dishonesty and negligence can also be sheeted home to this shift in values.

In the midst of successive financial crises, the hand of the market still harvests wealth for the wealthy. While the richest avoid taxation, billions can be found to shore up the corporate sector, but not to deal with child poverty, third world diseases, high rates of youth incarceration and suicide, and other indicators of suffering and failure.

At the same time, our lakes and the sea are polluted, forests are falling silent and the rivers are turning brown. Land is farmed and forests felled right to the water’s edge in the pursuit of profit.

In a recent study of 179 countries, New Zealand had the highest ratio of indigenous species in danger of extinction. Oil companies are encouraged to drill in deep waters, inject chemicals and set off explosions in our ‘shaky isles.’ What price 100% New Zealand Pure?

Add to this the dispersal of state assets, owned by all New Zealanders, to private and corporate owners (often offshore) by successive governments, and the question has to be asked. In whose interests is our country being run?

The philosophies that persuaded many Kiwis to betray their own best values are bankrupt, and our future is at risk. A nation that does not care for its children has a death wish. A society that destroys the environment that sustains it will fail.

A great deal is at stake here – a beautiful country with fertile, productive land, diverse cultures, decent people and a robust tradition of independent thinking. This, then, is the puzzle. Why do people support policies that are not in their own interests, let alone those of future generations?

Some suggest this is because the middle 40% of income earners aspires to join the top 10%, and does not want the bottom 50% to displace them. This may help to explain the rise in consumerism and household debt, but it is only part of the story.

People also have to be persuaded that there is no alternative to the policies that beset them, or that external factors are to blame, or the likely impacts on their lives are misrepresented.

Here, the freedom of the press is vital. If the independence of the media is compromised, the flow of information is in danger and independent voices are silenced. The press becomes a tool in the politics of diversion, with stories about celebrities and scandals displacing reporting on serious issues.

As the News of the World saga in the UK suggests, politicians who depend on wealthy individuals and corporations to fund their campaigns, and the media to portray them in a good light are already compromised in their ability to stand up for the public good, even in the face of gross abuses.

Some join in the party and pursue their own interests without compunction. In New Zealand as elsewhere, this leads to a kind of irresponsible hubris in public life and a weakening of democratic checks and balances.

Without vigorous scrutiny, ministers take unfettered powers into their own hands and over-ride the roles of democratically elected bodies (in Auckland and Canterbury, for example). The independence of the judiciary, the civil service and local government is threatened. This leads to poor decision-making, a dearth of fresh ideas and a sense of disaffection.

Even in economic life, when collective values collapse, failure is likely. In New Zealand, recent research indicates that arrogant, greedy and unilateral styles of management result in loss of productivity and profits, as good employees leave for other businesses or countries.

More than a change of government in New Zealand, what is needed is a change of heart. In a small, innovative country, it is folly to despoil our most significant social and economic assets – these islands and our children. It is time to seek alternative futures.

We must demand of our leaders – and ourselves – that at the very least, the land, the sea and our young people are cared for. Without them, there is no future. I agree with Phillip Mills and Sam Morgan that there should be a redistribution of wealth in New Zealand. The yawning gap between rich and poor in our small country is intolerable.

We should expect the press to deliver vigorous, informed debate. Democratic principles must be upheld, and dictatorial styles of leadership resisted. MMP is helpful here, and the cynical abuses of our electoral system in Epsom and elsewhere are a disgrace.

In fact, many of the best things in this country happen when groups and communities are empowered to pursue their own projects. Passion and commitment is unleashed, and pride and creativity.

As Sir Paul Callaghan has argued, technical and entrepreneurial innovation is crucial. It is not sufficient, however. In New Zealand, world-leading ways of delivering on justice, care for the environment and for others are also vital.

In this quest, there is no need to be timid. With the emancipation of women, nuclear-free policies and the Waitangi Tribunal, we have done it before.

Dame Anne Salmond
About the author

Dame Anne Salmond

Professor - University of Auckland

Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland, and the author of many award-winning books and articles on Maori life and early contacts between Europeans and islanders in Polynesia. She has has been honoured with a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.

She is a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences in the US and Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, the only New Zealander to have won both awards. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand; Fellow of the NZ Academy of the Humanities; and a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

Anne Salmond is the Project Sponsor of the Starpath project, aimed at enhancing educational excellence for Maori, Pacific and low income students; patron of many community organisations; and an engaged environmentalist. In 2013 she became the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, and was awarded the Rutherford Medal, the Royal Society of New Zealand’s top scientific prize.