Bryan Gould
Bryan Gould, CNZM, writes an occasional column on current events

Bryan Gould: Homelessness a problem Govt chooses to avoid

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Image / iStock
Image / iStock

The Prime Minister, asked yesterday morning on National Radio, what advice he would offer to an Auckland family with nowhere to live but in a car, suggested that they should, "Go to see Work and Income to see what help they could give them."

The advice that a desk officer in Work and Income could miraculously find them a house they could afford was the equivalent of shrugging his shoulders and saying, "I have no idea of what they could do and I don't really care."

Auckland's shortage of affordable housing and soaring house prices are now so significant that they could threaten the financial stability of the whole country, but there is no one at greater risk than Auckland's poor.

For them, the possibility of buying a house is non-existent, and - as speculative investors buy up the cheaper houses and force up the rents - their meagre budgets do not extend as far as even the cheapest rented property.

Yet let us be clear. The problem of families with children forced to live in third-world conditions is eminently resolvable. It simply requires the application of resources - resources that a country with our wealth could easily afford. The issue is one of priorities.

We could put an end to child poverty and housing shortages if we decided to move the issue nearer the top of the list. It doesn't happen because we choose that it shouldn't.
We choose to elect a government that we know will give a low priority to the most vulnerable in our society - a government that on the other hand will strive might and main and will take considerable political risks in the interests of, for example, its friends in the foreign trust industry.

We endorse, in effect, the Prime Minister's confidence that "middle New Zealand" will support his casual dismissal of concerns about the plight of the homeless and the consequent blight on our society.

Mike Hosking, the self-proclaimed champion of "middle New Zealand", that apparently uncaring and blinkered sector of society, assures us, in the authentic language of neo-liberalism, that the "free market" would solve the problem if only there were more opportunity for speculation, profit-taking and unrestrained bank lending.

The market, it seems, despite its current excesses and failures, is the solution, but government - our government - is either part of the problem, if local, or absolved from responsibility, if central.

We, "middle" or otherwise, could change this attitude if we so decided. There was a time when New Zealanders would have reacted with distress and even anger at the thought that we would tolerate homelessness on a significant scale in our midst.

Sadly, the cynical view of human nature represented by the values of so-called "middle New Zealand" now allow our government in effect to wash its hands of the problem.

It is no accident that the concept of "middle New Zealand" has been established and has prospered in the media where, with honourable exceptions, a self-serving attitude has been assiduously propagated. That trend is likely to strengthen if proposed changes in media ownership take place.

The concentration of cross-media ownership in New Zealand is already of dangerous proportions. With important outlets in the press, radio, and television already in single ownership, we already see a politically partisan figure like Mike Hosking free to peddle his literally eccentric views across all of those outlets. His very ubiquitousness allows him to claim his chosen role as the spokesperson for "middle New Zealand".

That, however, is just the forerunner of what will happen if NZME and Fairfax merge their New Zealand operations. Virtually the whole of New Zealand media will then be in single ownership; views that diverge from the supposed "middle" will be heard even less than they are today.

The Commerce Commission will of course have to assess the proposed move in terms of whether or not it will reduce competition. But that is a financial judgment that takes little account of the importance to a properly functioning democracy of allowing a diversity of views to be expressed.

READ MORE: Mark Thomas: Homeless plan not working

If those views are not heard, we will become more and more inclined to accept that we should look at all issues in the public domain through a business lens. We have already travelled a long way down that path.

How many people, for example, even noticed, let alone reacted adversely to, the statement from our Health Minister that he was "preparing a business case'" in respect of a decision as to whether or not to fund a bowel cancer screening programme?

When other countries with whom we like to think we are comparable see it as a worthwhile expenditure, what does a "business case" have to do with it? And in such a business case, what dollar value is to be placed on the lives saved, the pain avoided, the grief and misery of bereaved families?

There are some areas of course that are apparently exempt from a calculation as to a monetary return on investment. Does anyone recall a business case being prepared for the $26 million spent on the flag campaign?

Bryan Gould is a former UK Labour MP and former vice-chancellor of Waikato University.

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