Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: The politicisation of poverty

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Is poverty and inequality the responsibility of the government?  Photo / Thinkstock
Is poverty and inequality the responsibility of the government? Photo / Thinkstock

Is the National Government being swayed by the increasing debate and concern about poverty and inequality? An illustration that this might indeed be the case can be seen in what appears to be a major U-turn - the Government might take up the proposal to introduce a comprehensive food-in-schools programme - see Simon Collins' Govt signals it will feed hungry kids. Added to this, Deborah Hill-Cone writes in the Herald today about the increasing inequality between CEOs and their workers - see: What tosh is spoken about CEOs' pay - and surprisingly she says that she has herself done a U-turn on the rightwing justifications for that gap, and now challenges the concept that the rich get paid what they're worth. Such examples illustrate the extent that the issues of poverty and inequality have suddenly emerged onto the political agenda in recent times, and how they are challenging the until-now enduring consensus of the status quo. But that's not to say that there is any kind of new consensus on the existence of poverty and inequality - nor about how to solve it. Quite the opposite, this is an area that is highly contentious with a variety of different views and approaches.

It's child poverty that is at the forefront of the current concern about inequality and poverty. Focus is currently on the Children's Commission's report into child poverty, written by its Expert Advisory Group - public submissions close on it this week. For an overview of the report's 'big ideas', their pros and cons, and the political response to them, see Andrew Laxon's Six of the best ideas for change. And the co-chair of the Expert Advisory Group, Jonathan Boston, also has a very good feature in the Herald in which he refutes the Three myths about child poverty.

For more on the question of 'what poverty means' in New Zealand, see Simon Collins and Catherine Masters' in-depth feature, Searching for a way out. They discuss some of the drivers of poverty in New Zealand (such as divorce and unemployment) as well its impact - and they cite one piece of research that suggests 'the resulting lost productivity and higher state spending costs New Zealand about $8 billion a year, or 4.5 per cent of our economic output'.

Of course poverty and inequality have many policy relations - and housing is a key one. Some critics say that 'New Zealand's response to homelessness lags behind other developed countries: there are no official numbers, there is no legislation, there is no national strategy and there is no funding' - see Trevor Quinn's Homeless problem demands attention. Similarly, education is obviously closely related - and Radio New Zealand's John Gerritsen produced an interesting Insight documentary in the weekend that explored 'why poverty is so closely linked in NZ to poor grades' and why tackling income inequality is the biggest single factor in beating under-achievement at school' - listen here. Or else, read the RNZ item, More money for poor families urged. Also in the weekend, Kim Hill interviewed journalist Max Rashbrooke on his upcoming book about the increasing divide between rich and poor in New Zealand - listen to: Max Rashbrooke - social inequality and boarding houses.

So is poverty and inequality the responsibility of the government? Matt McCarten says so in his column, No need to starve yourself, just give poor some more. He argues that the cause of poverty is the 'fact that our political leaders run an economy where there are more than 100,000 fewer jobs than there should be, and that many of the existing jobs are low-paid, casual and part-time, is not addressed'. He also has some scathing comments about do-gooding celebrities and politicians that participated in the recent Unicef 'Live Below the Line' campaign.

On the political right a case can be made that many more appropriate, productive, and efficient solutions to improving the lives of those in poverty can be found outside of 'welfarist', 'big state' and 'expensive' intervention. They would point to, first, the philanthropic element of what has been achieved under existing food in school schemes - after all the KidsCan charity already feeds thousands of children in hundreds of schools based on charity from wider society and individual businesses.

Also, they would say that there are other policy levers that the government can pull that have an influence in the poor. For example, the high cost of housing in New Zealand is arguably due to the policy settings around city planning, resource consent and zoning. In this regard it is being reported the National Government is soon to announce some major changes that will supposedly lead to a much needed increase in building activity - see: Govt plan means cheaper housing.

Of course, when thinking about New Zealand poverty and inequality it's worth considering how New Zealand companies might be contributing to it elsewhere in the world. An Australian newspaper has just published the results of its 12-month investigation which found that New Zealand's Canterbury sports brand is selling rugby balls made in India that take up to an hour to stitch, earning their child labourers '11 rupees, about 25c' - see Amelia Wade's NZ probe into child labour claims.

Other important or interesting political items today include:

* John Armstrong has a very good analysis of how much damage the Dotcom saga might be causing the National Government - see: Tough lesson for Key in Dotcom blunders. John Hartevelt also evaluates John Key's role in it all, and like Armstrong admonishes him for his poor oversight of his own agency, but Hartevelt does give the Prime Minister some credit for how openly he has handled the scandal - see: Key must press on to fix spy agency.

* A more damaging item is David Fisher's article, Dotcom explanation won't wash: experts, in which Fisher refutes the Prime Minister and GCSB's arguments that there was confusion over the laws affecting Dotcom's residential status. Graeme Edgeler follows this up with even more detail in Kim Dotcom: all the fault of the Immigration Act?. And for more scathing coverage of the scandal, it's worth reading Paul Holmes' opinion piece on the latest police investigation - see: Cops chase cops: It's the stuff of satire.

* In terms of news coverage, John Key's visit to Hollywood was hardly an unmitigated success. The most comprehensive item on the visit was probably Kate Chapman's Sticking to the script on a Hobbit windfall. But it's also worth reading this week's Listener editorial - not only because it intelligently quotes Eva Longoria - but for its questioning of the whereabouts of the government review into the tax breaks for filmmaking in New Zealand - see: Reeling in the movie-makers. And for lighter material on the visit, see Toby Manhire's New York Times notices New Zealand PM's Hollywood visit.

* The Labour Party is still struggling to profit from National's difficult times - which is evidenced by Matthew Hooton's derisory Labour's front bench report card and Tim Watkin's Why a Labour reshuffle just ain't enough. And John Tamihere's appearance on TVNZ's Q+A probably isn't helping - see: John Tamihere slams Labour, mulls political comeback. It seems that there are plenty on the left that wouldn't welcome Tamihere's return as a Labour MP - see, for example, Morgan Godfery's John Tamihere: National MP for Waitakere.

* The Greens are definitely profiting from the ongoing economic slump, and have made many headlines with their adventurous proposal for the Reserve Bank to print more money - see Audrey Young's Labour sees merit in Green call to print cash. Responses from the right have not been slow - see David Farrar's Greens literally believe money does grow on trees and economist Matt Nolan's No QE "free lunch" for NZ. On a totally different level - and aimed more at critiquing Fran O'Sullivan - see Andrew Geddis' slightly strange but illuminating blogpost In that ye provoke me unto wrath with the works of your hands.... Geddis has also followed this up with another post: I ain't no big city economist or nothing, but....

* Should the rich do their best to legitimately avoid tax? TV3's Guyon Espiner reports about how New Zealand has become an 'accidental tax haven' in his 18-minute programme Treasure Islands. Danyl Mclauchlan responds in his blogpost Legitimate tax avoidance. And in the Herald, Damien Grant argues that 'you should first pay your $33,000 but, beyond that, your moral, if not legal, obligation is extinguished' - see: Heavy tax load borne by a few.

* Finally, leftwing blogger Scott Yorke strikes back at rightwing Matthew Hooton's appraisal of the Labour Party front bench (cited above), with his own National's Front Bench Report Card.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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