TV review: The zombies are here

By Sarah Lang

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New documentary is more than a bleeding-heart leftie moan, writes Sarah Lang

Bryan Bruce introduced his own zombies to parliament.
Bryan Bruce introduced his own zombies to parliament.

Take a bow, Bryan Bruce. The award-winning documentary-maker, whose TV3 special Inside Child Poverty triggered a national debate in 2011, has outdone himself with an investigative tour de force of incredible depth and breadth. Inside New Zealand: Mind the Gap: A Special Report on Inequality screens Thursday night on TV3. Don't be put off by the convoluted title, and don't assume this is a bleeding-heart leftie moan about what a bum deal the poor are getting. Because this is a staggeringly good watch, and this issue affects all of us.

The façade of New Zealand as a fair, egalitarian society with opportunity for everyone masks the yawning gap between the rich and the poor, a gap growing faster in New Zealand than in most developed countries. Why? To find out, Bruce spent a year delving deep into New Zealand's economic history and present, seeking advice from world experts including Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and Zombie Economics author/economist John Quiggin. But we're not stuck staring at talking heads for 46 minutes, with cartoons, old TV commercials, and archival footage of earnest and drunk politicians livening things up.

Few people could translate complex economic concepts and issues without sounding patronising, preachy, opaque or downright dull. But Bruce hits just the right note with his chatty manner, plain English, snazzy graphics, and interviews with struggling New Zealand families. One lives in tents. Another can only afford tinned meat.

His rhetorical questions will see many heads nodding. "Do you think you pay too much tax when others don't pay their fair share? Do you work all week and can't seem to make ends meet?" Aided by a graph with giant yellow arrows, Bruce convincingly argues that the large "struggling class" (once known as the middle class) bears too big a financial burden. Through their tax, the struggling class subsidises both the unemployed poor through benefits, and the working poor (who can't afford to live on what they earn) through accommodation supplements ($1.2 billion a year) and Working for Families top-ups ($2 billion a year). Meanwhile, the wealth trickles up not down, as profits from rents, food and consumer items go back to the wealthiest 10 per cent.

Blame Reagan. Blame Thatcher. Blame Rogernomics. Blame New Zealand's 30 years of policies based on the economic philosophy of neoliberalism. Taking inspiration from Zombie Economics, Bruce sets three zombies loose on Parliament's steps, waving placards emblazoned with the neoliberal concepts still haunting and hurting us: deregulation, privatisation, and the trickle-down effect. The world-leading economists interviewed are dead clear that these neoliberal economic policies aren't just flawed, they've failed miserably, particularly in New Zealand. The economists pan the idiocy of government asset sales, and the lack of financial regulation that spawned the 2008 global financial crisis and cost the taxpayer billions in bailouts. Yet nothing's changed.

Mind the Gap may make you mad: at the politicians, the bankers, and the wealthy committing tax fraud that costs the country at least $1 billion and up to $5 billion a year (only one in five goes to jail). But it may also give you hope. In London, Bruce interviews a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax scheme, which forces big banks to pay taxes on certain transactions, with proceeds going to tackle poverty and other global issues. Supported by 1000 economists, the International Monetary Fund and Bill Gates, the initiative is being implemented in 11 European countries. Bruce also travels to Bangladesh and Europe to witness the success of "social business", where companies pay their own way but channel profits into helping solve global problems.

Back home, 30 years after the zombies took hold of New Zealand, real wages have fallen, the wealthy have got richer, and we're more in debt than ever. And yet a failed economic ideology still trumps reality. "At what point," asks Bruce, "do we admit that the neoliberal economic theory that we've been living under for the last 30 years has simply failed to deliver the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people? And isn't that what an economy should be about?" The major roadblock, of course, is the unwillingness to change economic policies that "maintain the vested interests of the rich and the powerful". However, the wealthy should be aware that the more unequal the society is, the worse the rates of crime, violence, murder, teen pregnancies, obesity, child mortality, etcetera, affecting us all.

As compelling as it is important, Mind the Gap deserves to spark some conversations. Let's support social businesses. Let's welcome Robin Hood. Let's regulate the bankers. Let's kill the zombies.

Inside New Zealand: Mind the Gap: A Special Report on Inequality screens Thursday, 7:30pm, TV3.

- Herald on Sunday

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