Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: It's not dumb to want a better life

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We have prided ourselves on being a meritocracy but the elite still want to keep others out

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Oh-kayyyy. So Mike Williams, a former Labour Party president, calls parents who try to get their kids into higher decile schools "dumb".

In an opinion piece in the Herald on Sunday, Williams criticises these aspirational parents for trying to get a leg up for their kids, mainly it seems because it's a hassle they have to drive around more. "I always went to the closest state school as a kid, and my kids and grandchildren did and do the same."

I went to a low-decile state school, too, Mike, but that was in the 1980s: we also drove Holden Kingswoods and listened to Air Supply. Things are different now, with a polarisation between the high-decile and low-decile schools. Coming from the left, I'd have thought you Mike, of anyone, would appreciate that.

And although Williams might blithely claim all our schools are "much of a muchness", parents who pay a premium to buy a house in Auckland's grammar zone obviously don't agree. Perhaps they're dumb, too.

I am puzzled that Mike Williams, someone who comes from a party which claims to support social mobility, would criticise those who are trying to help their children work for a better life. Poor people who want their children to get ahead should be applauded shouldn't they?

Nope, apparently they should shuffle back to the other side of the tracks where they belong. But now I'm starting to think that is our dirty little secret. We have prided ourselves on being a meritocracy, but in subtle and some blatant ways, the group who run this country, the white middle-class elite, want to keep others out.

They are bitterly clinging on to their waning power. Whether right or left wing, the message is pull the ladder up behind you, lads.

And I'll tell you something, Mike Williams, that really is "dumb". Harvard economist James Robinson has studied what makes societies prosperous and after decades of research has concluded the key attribute of a society's wealth is how inclusive it is.

That is, does a nation's establishment or political institutions let in "outsiders", the people who bring energy and innovation and new ideas. Those working-class people who drive across town because they want their children to get a better education, say.

Talking on National Radio Professor Robinson said Australasia has been good at being inclusive. But I'm not so sure. Oh, I know we pride ourselves on being an egalitarian society but in many insidious ways we discourage people who dare to want to move between social groups.

This may be quiet and manipulative: a "who do you think you are?" message delivered sotto voce, rather than a blatant keep out sign. Just ask some new immigrants to this country, those who have had successful careers overseas, how hard they find it to break in here and get recognition or entrance to our power bases. We might give high achievers a visa to live here but our elite still want to keep them out.

Maybe this reluctance to let in anyone who is different is a remnant from our moribund past when an old boys club of corpulent white male farmers ran the show. But the world has changed.

If institutions of power enable the elite to serve its own interest - a structure Professor Robinson terms "extractive institutions" - the interests of the elite come to collide with, and prevail over, those of the mass of the population. In the end, from Rome to Argentina, these wealthy societies came tumbling down.

We are not the only place where the establishment is under threat. In this week's Spectator editorial "Bonfire of the Establishment", the magazine, whose own commentator in 1955 invented the term "The Establishment", says the establishment has gone through many upheavals but never before faced an existential threat. But it is now.

For many reasons, not least the democratising effect of the digital revolution, the old elite is toast. The gatekeepers have lost control. As author James A. Michener put it: "It is difficult to be king when the gods are changing." The "kings" who don't realise this really are dumb.

- NZ Herald

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