Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Forget WWI, Owen Glenn's got it right

Owen Glenn. Photo /  Dean Purcell
Owen Glenn. Photo / Dean Purcell

How embarrassing for the Government that its insane proposal to splurge more than $17 million on celebrating the centenary of World War I was unveiled as philanthropist Owen Glenn was pledging $80 million to combat family violence and abuse.

About $10 million of the World War I lottery money has been earmarked for "one or more large-scale commemoration projects", the other $7 million plus towards "activities and events which will bring New Zealand communities together".

How a big spend-up on reliving the slaughter and maiming of millions of young men and innocent civilians in a battle of empires in Europe 100 years ago, is going to help bring New Zealand communities together, Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain hasn't explained.

Mr Glenn's generosity will. He is zeroing in on his old stamping ground of Otara, in an initial $8 million project centring "on helping build stronger communities."

His money will go towards, among other things, funding a Families Centre, a women's refuge, sporting and recreational facilities and in-school training on issues ranging from financial literacy to how to grow vegetables. He is committed to ploughing back a tenth of his fortune - estimated at around $800 million - into this crusade.

"The cost of domestic violence and child abuse to the New Zealand economy is the equivalent of rebuilding Christchurch every four years - forever," said Mr Glenn. "It's a national embarrassment."

In a bid to shame the Government into action he offered to fund a commission of inquiry "to get to the bottom" of the problem and produce a solution.

Of course, no self-respecting government could accept such an offer - if only because there are reports aplenty already revealing both causes and solutions. And I wager not one includes building more cenotaphs or war memorials as part of the answer.

Most of us got to know Owen Glenn as the expat businessman who ended up with egg over his face after his financial dalliances with the Labour Party and Winston Peters.

Unfortunately, that image has got in the way of the good works he is doing through the Glenn Family Foundation.

This time last year, Auckland cattle hide millionaire and arts patron James Wallace was harrying his rich contemporaries to follow his example and give back to the community that had made them wealthy. At the time, he and Arts Minister Chris Finlayson, who started a "cultural philanthropy taskforce" charged with finding ways of persuading the rich to part with their spare cash voluntarily, were looking for new "arts" patrons rather than philanthropists in general.

Mr Glenn needed no prodding from Sir James; he was already involved, continuing the tradition of rich Auckland benefactors dating back to Governor Sir George Grey, founding donor for the Auckland public art gallery. A contemporary was 1860s gold and land speculator James Mackelvie, whose generosity added to the art gallery and Auckland Museum.

In more recent times, examples include Pierre and Jacqui Chatelanat giving their 843ha Kaipara Harbour farm as a reserve, Stephen and Margaret Tindall setting up a foundation in 1994, which has donated around $100 million to community initiatives since 1994 and American billionaires Julian and Josie Robertson's gift of a $115 million "modernist" art collection to the Auckland Art Gallery.

In his "give more" homily to the young rich, Sir James criticised wealthy individuals who instead of being "into philanthropy" were "immersed in their own lives and their own wealth".

The clear nudge was that those like him, who are rich, have a duty to give back to the community that made them wealthy. Until the mid-1980s, seeking out the exceedingly rich would have been difficult. New Zealand was then one of the most egalitarian of nations as far as wage differentials went. But in the following two decades, we went from being one of the most equal incomed people in the developed world, to one of the most unequal. Of 34 OECD countries, New Zealand is now at 25 on the equality ladder.

With the rise of the new poor matching the increase of the new rich, it's a relief some of the wealthy want to give back to the communities in which they grew up and prospered. People like Owen Glenn.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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