Once upon a time in New Zealand…

I remember when the government helped young people to move up in the world. It was a time when all mothers got the Family Benefit, which could be turned into a deposit (capitalised) on a house with an affordable State Advances mortgage. I also remember when inexpensive night school classes for school certificate and university entrance were common. And also affordable university evening extension courses leading to professional qualifications. Labour and National governments abandoned the leg-up philosophy as well as collective responsibility. Union protection was replaced with individual contracts and, conveniently, a low wage economy.

State assets were sold to those who could afford shares. Shareholders who could not afford to buy what they thought they already owned were dispossessed. Growing inequality became inevitable.

Before he became Prime Minister, John Key made a speech about streets where helplessness had become ingrained. “Where people believe they are locked out of everyday New Zealand, locked into a way of life for which the exit signs and road maps have long since been discarded. Places where the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have been broken.” Yet after three terms in office the rungs of the ladder were still broken, as they had been when Helen Clark finished her nine years.

With dark humour worthy of an episode of Blackadder, GST was introduced impartially. The rich and poor would pay the same rate of GST on food and other necessities.

In the belief that a hand-out was no different from a leg-up, charity achieved the status of social policy. A network of charitable organisations began doling out food and clothing. At first beneficiaries were shamed by this development but passing years made charity the norm. So much so that the establishment of a charity hospital raised barely a ripple of embarrassment. When schools took on the role of breakfast and uniform providers the population’s conditioned response was apathy. This was the new New Zealand.

As food banks grew in number so too did the number of million dollar CEOs and million dollar houses, ensuring that more and more young people were excluded from home ownership.

Intensive dairying proliferated without plans or controls. Intensive tourism followed with similar results – a degraded environment. Business was encouraged to ignore societal considerations. Meanwhile the age of hyperbolic business-speak soared over the embarrassment of having to ask the Chinese to build simple railway carriages and roads which we used to build ourselves.

As the cash-strapped public health service struggles to cope with the alarming growth of processed food related diseases, diabetes among them, processed food manufacturers remain  untouchable. Meanwhile, private health care businesses flourish. While this was not planned,  neither can it be attributed to coincidence. Intervention in business of any kind, regardless of public harm, is seen by LabourNational as a step too far for governments concerned mainly with de-regulation.

Internationally too, we are in decline. Admiration for our independent nuclear stand had long faded when New Zealand’s term at the United Nations gave us another opportunity to be upstanding. Until, that is, a desperate foreign minister backtracked, grovelling to Israel, and yet, remaining silent in response to Australia’s contempt, leaving us looking spineless.

Inevitably, democracy has also suffered. The public’s preference for a four year electoral term is ignored, as is preference for a 4% party threshold and removal of ‘coat-tailing.’ Two-Party political convenience rules, which is why MMP has yet to reach maturity.

Clearly, this outline of the National/Labour legacy ignores the achievements of both parties. Obviously both can claim achievements. But their good deeds are as nothing compared to their deficiencies. Both can be indicted for complacency, a sense of entitlement, the pursuit of political power in preference to principles, lack of fresh ideas, lack of vision, failure of leadership and suffocating mediocracy,

The challenges ahead include climate change, fixing the housing crises, food related illnesses that are undermining public health resources, and technological progress rendering a frightening number of jobs obsolete. We need vigour not staleness, an infusion of intellectual vitality, a vision that makes New Zealanders proud of more than sporting prowess.

Perhaps  new Labour leader  Jacinda Ardern and the Greens may turn things around,  but  I’m too old now  to be a believer.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.