I’ve written before of an experience I had visiting a very sick girl in South Auckland. She was born with a crippling genetic disorder into a home wrecked by poverty. I can see her in my mind very clearly, working hard just to take a breath, her face drawn and tired. I can see her hooked up to the machine, propped up on a single mattress in the corner of a cold state house bedroom, while the rest of the family (seven if I recall rightly) shared elsewhere to give her peace. I met her mother. Amongst the anguish and concern on her face flittered guilt and shame. I could tell very quickly she was doing the best she could, under appalling conditions. The entire experience left me drained and saddened. It also made me angry.
Economic inequality in New Zealand is out of control. There is no excuse for ignoring it. Since the 1980s the gap between the rich and poor in this country has grown faster than in any other developed nation on the planet. After deducting the cost of housing, the average disposable income for someone in the bottom 10% of our nation is lower than it was in the 1980s. And although the middle class’ share of income has also declined, the surge in income to the rich is shown to be off the backs of our nation’s poorest people.
Wealth, defined as our income plus our accumulated assets, is even more unevenly distributed – the top 1% of adults own three times as much of New Zealand’s wealth as the entire lower 50% put together. The simple fact is that in a world of increasing productivity and connectivity, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. That all of this is happening in New Zealand (previously a lauded model of egalitarianism in action) at such an astonishing rate should make us all ashamed.
But many of us aren’t. We seem to just blithely accept this state of affairs, or worse to outright ignore it. And when we are given the opportunity to change it, we seem to lack the gumption. The truth is very plain to see – over 30 years we have become a more unfair nation, and our health and happiness has suffered. We have the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world. And the National and Labour parties, both sides, have presided over this state of affairs and done little to arrest it. Why is that?
National is the party of the property-owning class, and the gross disparities in accumulated wealth resulting from our property market is a major driver of that inequality. National also toyed with ‘trickle down’ economics in its devastating 1990 budget and still embraces debunked Neoliberal ideology that continues to drive down wages and perpetuate this inequality. They routinely ignore the evidence for certain problems, such as being “tough on crime”, in favour of pieced together policies that speak to people’s emotions rather than their intellects. They are draconian with respect to our prisons and our schools, and they still flirt with socially conservative positions that have no place in our modern, diverse nation.
Labour has been more helpful in genuinely trying to help those at the bottom, but their efforts are either too little too late, or based on old-fashioned thinking – they are window-dressing. The truth is both of these parties have let the New Zealand people down. By and large this has nothing to do with malice – it’s just what happens when winning votes becomes more important than fixing problems.
For example, both parties refuse to address the big problem of superannuation out of fear of losing the older vote. So we continue to give away the same amount of money to every single senior citizen, from those in cold homes struggling to pay the power bill, to the millionaires right at the top. Meanwhile, those at the bottom – people sleeping in their cars, people leaving their prescriptions unfilled, people working two jobs and still not earning enough to survive – all of those people who desperately need extra support are made to go without. Is that really fair?
I’ve been accused of having a go at Labour, when I ‘should’ support them, as they are more closely aligned to my beliefs than National – which is most definitely true. I also ‘should’ support them because it is the ‘tactical’ thing to do. I acknowledge this is just a matter of opinion, and many will disagree with me, but I don’t believe in tactical voting. I don’t believe in being told who I should vote for, and I don’t believe anyone has a right to my vote. I believe politicians have a duty to earn my vote.
The best way I can see to guarantee that bold change never happens, is to scare us into thinking that a vote for it is a “wasted vote.” I don’t believe in wasted votes. The only way to one day achieve the plan or vision for society that resonates with you is to vote for it.
This year I’m going to vote for the party with a policy plan that I believe will best help that very sick girl. National and Labour have had 30 years to make sure we protect her from such destitution and they have failed. I want a government that says that those with so much can afford to help those with so little.
We need to understand that our major parties often choose policies not based on their evidential merit, but on the likelihood that certain groups and special interests will like them. This has to change. I strongly believe people are good and empathetic when we are honest with them and speak to their hearts.
Most of all, I want to unburden that girl’s mother of her terrible guilt and shame – because that guilt and shame does not belong to her, it belongs to all of us. We have a collective responsibility to care for one another and we are failing to do so. We can’t keep trusting to the National/Labour duopoly to fix this for us. It is time for something different.