Dame Anne Salmond: We could do with a change of heart

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There's more to securing our future than technical and commercial innovation, writes eminent historian Dame Anne Salmond, Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at Auckland University.

Anthropologist and author Dame Anne Salmond. Photo / Martin Sykes
Anthropologist and author Dame Anne Salmond. Photo / Martin Sykes

The international rating agencies have done all New Zealanders a favour. The double downgrade of the country's credit rating makes it clear that the policies and philosophies promoted by successive governments are not working.

The "invisible hand" of the market, first conceived in the Enlightenment but coupled at that time with notions of justice, human dignity and "the rights of man", has failed to deliver prosperity and happiness, in New Zealand as elsewhere.

The problem, it seems, is a loss of balance. In the pursuit of profit, everything in the world - the earth itself, other species, knowledge and indeed, other people - has been turned into a "resource" to be exploited, often without care or conscience.

In the process, ideas of justice, truth and the common good have been undermined. Without these bulwarks, democracy falters, capitalism fails to share wealth and the distribution of income shifts dangerously out of kilter.

Since the 1990s, income inequality in New Zealand has soared.

In the midst of successive financial crises, the hand of the market still harvests wealth for the wealthy. While the richest avoid taxation, billions can be found to shore up the corporate sector, but not to deal with child poverty, third-world diseases, high rates of youth incarceration and suicide, and other indicators of suffering and failure.

At the same time, our lakes and the sea are polluted, forests are falling silent and the rivers are turning brown. Land is farmed and forests felled right to the water's edge in the pursuit of profit. In a recent study of 179 countries, New Zealand had the highest ratio of indigenous species in danger of extinction. Oil companies are encouraged to drill in deep waters, inject chemicals and set off explosions in our "shaky isles".

Add to this the dispersal of state assets, owned by all New Zealanders, to private and corporate owners (often overseas) by successive governments, and the question has to be asked: In whose interests is our country being run?

The philosophies that persuaded many Kiwis to betray their own best values are bankrupt, and our future is at risk. A nation that does not care for its children has a death wish. A society that destroys the environment that sustains it will fail.

This, then, is the puzzle. Why do people support policies that are not in their own interests, let alone those of future generations?

Some suggest this is because the middle 40 per cent of income earners aspires to join the top 10 per cent and does not want the bottom 50 per cent to displace them. This may help to explain the rise in consumerism and household debt, but it is only part of the story.

People also have to be persuaded that there is no alternative to the policies that beset them, or that external factors are to blame, or the likely impacts on their lives are misrepresented.

Here, the freedom of the press is vital. If the independence of the media is compromised, the flow of information is in danger and independent voices are silenced. The press becomes a tool in the politics of diversion, with stories about celebrities and scandals displacing reporting on serious issues.

As the News of the World saga suggests, politicians who depend on wealthy individuals and corporations to fund their campaigns and the media to portray them in a good light are already compromised in their ability to stand up for the public good.

Some join in the party and pursue their own interests without compunction. In New Zealand as elsewhere, this leads to a kind of irresponsible hubris in public life and a weakening of democratic checks and balances.

Without vigorous scrutiny, ministers take unfettered powers into their own hands and override the roles of democratically elected bodies (in Auckland and Canterbury, for example). The independence of the judiciary, the civil service and local government is threatened. This leads to poor decision-making, a dearth of fresh ideas and a sense of disaffection.

Even in economic life, when collective values collapse, failure is likely. In New Zealand, recent research indicates that arrogant, greedy and unilateral styles of management result in loss of productivity and profits, as good employees leave for other businesses or countries.

More than a change of government, what is needed is a change of heart.

We must demand of our leaders - and ourselves - that at the very least, the land, the sea and our young people are cared for. Without them, there is no future. I agree with Phillip Mills and Sam Morgan that there should be a redistribution of wealth in New Zealand. Recent studies link high median incomes with prosperity and stability, and wide disparities with economic fragility and failure.

We should expect the press to deliver vigorous, informed debate. Democratic principles must be upheld, and dictatorial styles of leadership resisted. MMP is helpful here, and the cynical abuses of our electoral system in Epsom and elsewhere are a disgrace.

As Sir Paul Callaghan has argued, technical and entrepreneurial innovation is crucial. It is not sufficient, however. In New Zealand, world-leading ways of delivering on justice, care for the environment and for others are also vital.

In fact, many of the best things in this country happen when groups and communities are empowered to pursue their own projects. Passion and commitment are unleashed, and pride and creativity.

Over the past few weeks, we've celebrated inventiveness, fellow feeling, commitment, generosity and the power of a "stadium of four million" in a beautiful land.

When the party is over, why stop?

- NZ Herald

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