Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Differing values widen the chasm

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Spiritual leaders highlight the 'bullshit economics' that business leaders decry

Franklin Roosevelt once said 'the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much - it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little'. Photo / Supplied
Franklin Roosevelt once said 'the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much - it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little'. Photo / Supplied

John Key is right. This election is not about his intimate yet public tea party tete-a-tete with John Banks, as educational as that would have been for Act voters and Key's devoted public.

What really matters to people, as the PM kept grimly reciting last week, is the economy and a bunch of other stuff he usually avoids discussing with the peskier journos who haven't succumbed to his everyman charm.

The expatriate businessman Owen Glenn writes that this is one of New Zealand's "most critical elections", and how we vote will make a world of difference to this country's future and fortunes.

He wants Key's government back in power. So do the vast majority of chief executives surveyed by the Herald, who like the Nats' asset sales and welfare reforms, and who urge them to reject the "bullshit economics", as one finance sector chief executive put it, of "expanding the benefit base, creating public sector jobs, and subsidies".

Clearly, bullshit economics is in the eye of the beholder.

The country's spiritual leaders take a different view. For them, the big issues are inequality, welfare and children in poverty. Their prescription for a fairer New Zealand differs so radically from the chief executives that they could be talking about another country.

In a joint statement signed by the heads of all major denominations, they've called for "a just share of society's wealth and resources" for all citizens, especially the most vulnerable. Adequate income, fair taxation policies, access to good health care and affordable housing, they say, "are not privileges but part of the common heritage of humanity". And "caring for others makes us better people and strengthens our community".

This is not just a difference of opinion; it's a difference of values and world views, which seems as much a symptom of the yawning income gap in New Zealand as iPads and laptops being required at some schools while the parents of kids at others struggle to afford winter jackets.

Poverty, rather than benefit reduction, should be the focus of reform, say agencies like Caritas, the Catholic Church's social arm, which knows beneficiaries and low-income families a lot better than the average voter or highly paid welfare reformer.

Says group spokesman Rodney Macann, "consider your values, and then consider what direction you think our Government should take to ensure a fairer future for all New Zealanders".

If church leaders sound like the Occupy movement, it's no accident. They've publicly supported the protesters who have "given voice to a widely held feeling that society is not heading in the right direction".

"Although corporate irresponsibility here has not reached the same polarising proportions of those in the USA, the inequality created is real and is growing."

While the right dismisses concerns about the concentration of wealth as the politics of envy, there's no doubt that one consequence of the widening income gap is that it becomes increasingly difficult for governments to find the right policy settings for the greater good.

Policies that cause barely a ripple for the well-off can devastate low-income households, and have far-reaching consequences for their children.

While politicians seldom stick around long enough to see the results of their handiwork, public health experts have little trouble linking, for example, National's 1991 benefit cuts to the doubling of child poverty and the rise in the rates of preventable diseases like rheumatic fever (14 times the OECD average).

Twenty years after those cuts, paediatrics professor Innes Asher says the health status of our children remains poorer than at pre-1990 levels.

The economic and social costs are borne by all of us, yet government efforts to alleviate the effects of poverty caused by the mismatch between wages and the cost of living, through Labour's Working for Families, for example, are decried as unaffordable entitlements.

As for the 200,000 children living below the poverty line, they must wait until the books are balanced and the economy has grown sufficiently to provide jobs for their parents - a prospect that, on current trends, doesn't look promising.

By the time we get around to helping them, their children will have had children of their own. (Though Labour has now joined the Greens, Mana and the Maori Party in promising to pay the $60 In-Work Tax Credit to the children of beneficiaries).

Meanwhile, National's tax cuts, the lion's share of which went to wealthier New Zealanders, confirm the truth of the biblical "Matthew effect" ("to those who have, more will be given").

Franklin Roosevelt once said that "the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much - it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little".

Our economic system is clearly failing the test. Growing the cake didn't work, those at the top just took a bigger share. Selling off large chunks of profitable strategic assets is a dead end that continues to put public goods in fewer hands.

In a world of finite resources, we cannot continue to grow our way out of our economic and ecological troubles. We need a new economic paradigm.

Maybe it's time for another cuppa.

- NZ Herald

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