Lizzie Marvelly: Save the Kiwi dream before it's too late

Housing prices in Rotorua rose 20 per cent in the  year to June 2016. Photo / Ben Fraser
Housing prices in Rotorua rose 20 per cent in the year to June 2016. Photo / Ben Fraser

For as long as I can remember, New Zealand has prided itself on being a so-called "classless" society.

The class system, as British as Yorkshire puddings and Worcestershire sauce, was not for us, thank you very much.

We may have been colonial simpletons with a funny accent, but we were egalitarian - and proud of it.

I say "were" because the fair go mentality we built our nation on (atop the Maori land that provided the foundations upon which colonial New Zealand flourished) is in grave danger of disappearing forever, buried under the weight of crushing inequality and a mushrooming housing crisis that threatens to strangle the Kiwi dream.

That dream included a fair wage, a decent education, and a home to call one's own.

It wasn't particularly grand - in fact, it was typically Kiwi in its modesty - but it promised a good life to those who were willing to work for it.

And you didn't need a university degree to achieve it.

When my parents started work in the 70s - my father at a sawmill and my mother at an electricity authority - they were able to save enough money to put down a deposit on their first house at age 20.

Imagine that.

Granted, they lived in Rotorua rather than Auckland, but the ripple effects of the current Auckland housing crisis are now being felt throughout the North Island.

Housing prices in Rotorua rose 20 per cent during the year of June 2015 to June 2016, fuelled by exasperated Aucklanders fed up with clinging on to the out of control runaway train that is the Auckland property market.

And really, who could blame them?

For a growing majority of New Zealanders, the Kiwi dream is increasingly unattainable, as housing costs soar, inequality skyrockets and we begin to confront the reality that our very own homegrown class system has come of age.

In no other stratum is our burgeoning social hierarchy more apparent than the propertied gentry of Auckland, of which I'm both embarrassed and grateful to admit that I am one.

As one of those extremely lucky and rare millennials who managed to purchase an apartment at the right time with the assistance of my family, I now stand upon the lauded property ladder, guiltily avoiding the gazes of my educated, hardworking friends who have a snowman's chance in hell of owning a home of their own.

It's not fair.

It's certainly not egalitarian.

It's not the Kiwi way.

But it's undeniably happening, and our leaders seem content to sit on their hands while the class divisions deepen rather than upset property and business-owning voters.

It's also likely that it will only get worse, and home ownership will become almost the exclusive domain of baby boomers, debt-strapped Gen X-ers and millennials with financially solvent parents and/or grandparents.

Sure, new developments are finally gaining pace, after a long and fraught battle against the Nimbys to finally solidify the Auckland Unitary Plan, but for the young professionals already fleeing the city, like the three Mt Albert Grammar science teachers leaving for the provinces at the end of this year, nurses and other lower-paid professionals, it's too little, too late.

So much for the good old "work hard to get ahead" Kiwi mantra, in all its privilege-blind glory.

It wouldn't take much for a demagogue promising to 'make New Zealand great again' to amass a horde of supporters.

Nowadays it is near impossible to deny that the path to home ownership is far more likely to be decided by what family you're born into than how diligent and industrious you are.

Hard work isn't enough to pay for a tiny, overpriced hovel miles away from anywhere that will probably go for twice its value at auction.

There will be a group of landowners that sees no problem with the status quo.

To them I'd like to mention two terrifying phenomena: Brexit and Donald Trump.

While we comfort ourselves imagining that both Brexit and Trump's ascension happened in countries vastly different to ours, we are missing the signs in our own society of deep social unrest.

Disenfranchised renters may be apathetic and depressed at the moment, but it wouldn't take much for a demagogue promising to "make New Zealand great again", or simply to give them a fair wage and a realistic pathway to home ownership to amass a horde of impassioned supporters.

Which brings us to an uncomfortable truth.

For a large number of our population, life in New Zealand isn't all that great.

It's probably better described as a constant struggle, whether it be to save for a deposit on an eye-wateringly expensive property in an overcooked market or to pay for school camp.

As a small number of haves find themselves in the cosy position of having even more, the definition of the "have nots" has widened to include even those with a tertiary education and a decent job.

And they're understandably angry about it.

That anger will likely lead to decidedly unpleasant outcomes.

As we've already witnessed in the debacle over property owners with "Asian-sounding" last names, racism and discrimination, both thinly veiled and overt, are ever-present in arguments about inequality.

It is an ugly feature of human nature that threatened groups will seek to protect themselves from any 'other' they view to be encroaching upon their territory.

With the issue of immigration simmering away in the lead-up to next year's election, we can be assured that we're in for a bumpy race that, let's be honest, Winston Peters will probably be the winner of.

Our challenge, like that of many developed nations in our modern world, is to acknowledge and address the unrest and dissent emerging in our communities before it mutates into a Trump-like situation.

We need to save the Kiwi dream before it's too late.

- NZ Herald

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