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

Bryce Edwards: The left's problem with inequality

Photo / Michael Craig
Photo / Michael Craig

The political left has a problem - inequality. They know that there's increasing concern in New Zealand society about economic inequality, in particular child poverty, unemployment, and the rising cost of living.

Somehow, though, they can't seem to make much progress in convincing the public that the current National Government is the problem. In fact National has attempted to assuage concerns over inequality in its most recent Budget, which appears to have worked.

Two major TV opinion polls out last night indicate a significant 'Budget bounce', which is appears to be due to National's more centrist positioning on social concerns - see Adam Bennett's National rides post-Budget wave. Of particular interest is the fact that 73% of the public favours National's 'families package', including a large number of leftwing voters who are obviously also supportive of this policy. See also, Patrick Gower's Labour's war-room now Cunliffe's panic station.

As I've argued previously, the National Government, and the rightwing in general, are not content to allow the political left to win the debate over issues of poverty and inequality - see my previous columns, The right wing fightback on inequality, and Fighting and debating inequality in 2014.

There will continue to be a sharp focus on inequality during this election campaign. Usefully, in the weekend, TV3's The Nation dedicated nearly an entire show to this topic. The best part was Torben Akel's 8-minute video report, New Zealand's record on inequality.

But it's also important to watch the 12-minute interview with visiting British academics Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. In response, see the 8-minute interview with Sue Moroney and Colin Craig, and the 10-minute panel discussion: Patrick Gower, Max Rashbrooke and Matthew Hooton. Labour's Rob Salmond also comments in his blog post, The Nation on inequality.

For more viewing on inequality in New Zealand - and how it might relate to this year's election - you can watch my 1-hour interview with a journalist who is an expert on inequality - see: Vote Chat with Max Rashbrooke.

So, what does the voting public think about the issue? The best in-depth information on this can be found in the UMR report on inequality, which was published recently. Amongst the findings, it seems that 50% of the public are 'very concerned' about 'growing inequality', 37% are 'somewhat concerned', and only 13% are 'not concerned at all'. Also, 71% believe that the gap between the rich and poor is widening, with 78% believing that effects of the gap have been bad for New Zealand. The stats also show a significant growth in those preferring to live in a more equal society.

Some of the most recent resurgence of interest in inequality in New Zealand is due to the visit by the authors of the Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Pickett, who have been giving a series of public lectures at the University of Auckland. Tonight they talk in Dunedin on Inequality, sustainability and well-being.

John Minto reports on the Auckland lectures in his blog post, Thoughts on The Spirit Level lectures - The big battle ahead - bringing democracy to our economy. He takes some issue with the authors' solutions, saying 'What the authors didn't address directly however was the enormous struggle it will be to achieve this. The wealthy will never give up their unearned incomes or their effective control of our major political parties without one hell of a fight but it's a fight New Zealand workers and workers globally will have to be up for'. See also, Minto's Who pays tax, who pays the most tax and who doesn't pay tax? and Keith Ng's Why does the top 10% paying more tax? (An interactive story).

The other major 'academic rockstar' of the moment who is revitalising the inequality debate is French economist Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is huge. For the best New Zealand take on the book, see Pattrick Smellie's in-depth Listener feature, The book that hit like a bomb - which has been unlocked for non-subscribers.

Other interesting New Zealand commentary on Piketty can be found in Danyl McLauchlan's This actually happened and Philip Ferguson's Thomas Piketty's ideas reach New Zealand.

Academic approaches to understanding issues of inequality can be found on the interesting new AUT website, Briefing Papers which has just launched and aims to host documents that better help public discussion and debate about the state of the country. See, for instance, Brian Easton's The Purpose of economic policy and Ian Shirley's The Purposes of social policy.

For a student take on the issues, see two interesting articles on inequality from this week's Salient magazine - Duncan MacLachlan and Cam Price's Inequality & Poverty, and Michael Pohl's Inequality from the Left.

At the University of Otago, some long-term academic research is now online - see the Socioeconomic Deprivation Indexes: NZDep and NZiDep, Department of Public Health. This is explained in Simon Collins' The equality debate: Inequality in NZ under spotlight. And some interesting interactive visuals can be seen in the online Herald feature by Harkanwal Singh - see: Where are NZ's most deprived areas? (+interactive).

Academics will be leading much of the debate about inequality in the coming weeks. For example, Victoria University is hosting a free one-day conference on 19 June on Inequality: Causes and Consequences. And in a couple of weeks, academics Jonathan Boston and Simon Chapple will launch their new book, Child Poverty in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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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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