Savage would be appalled if he saw what we have created

By Terry Sarten

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Former prime minister Michael Joseph Savage helped create an equitable society.  PHOTO/FILE
Former prime minister Michael Joseph Savage helped create an equitable society. PHOTO/FILE

If Michael Joseph Savage could see us now ... Despite all the political posturing, or perhaps because of it, we have lost sight of the vision that once made New Zealand a social champion among nations.

The foundations of that vision of a fair and equitable society were laid in the 1930s by Savage but, if his ghost were to appear among us now, it would be haunted by what we have become.

If he were to read that thousands of New Zealand children are currently homeless he would be appalled.

An Otago University study examined 2006 census information and found that 34,000 people experienced severe housing deprivation and there are indications the problem has grown bigger since then.

The study showed that over half of those categorised as homeless were under 25 and a quarter were children.

Many of these children had "no fixed abode", living in crowded temporary situations with friends or wider family and often on the move.

Because of frequent moves, these children become the gap kids - missing school, missing health checks and follow-ups, and the security of a settled life. Already carrying the effects of poverty, these children are then further disadvantaged in their health, education and sense of belonging by the shortage of affordable housing.

The definition of homelessness used by Statistics NZ is "a person who does not have a secure, safe, inhabitable and private place".

This includes those living in garages, boarding houses, sleeping on people's couches, living in campgrounds or in uninhabitable buildings with no power or water. These people become invisible and are not easily counted, as they do not have a permanent address that defines them.

If this sounds like Third World conditions in the Land of the Long White Cloud, then it probably is.

Savage, during his time as prime minister, was motivated by a vision of a society where all should have, as a right of citizenship, a reasonable standard of living. He introduced pensions, a free health service and pushed for the introduction of the Social Security Bill.

History shows he did this without resorting to destructive, divisive politics. He died in 1940 and is remembered as the architect of the first Labour government, which introduced reforms that made New Zealand an international example of social justice in action.

Now we have a severe housing shortage combined with a housing bubble that has driven prices to heights that first home buyers cannot reach, consequently pushing up rents to the point where those on low incomes can barely afford to find somewhere habitable where they can live with their children.

Both National and Labour should hang their collective heads in shame. The Otago study notes that at least 12,000 affordable homes are needed to effectively address this problem.

Where is the vision to act on behalf of these "gap" children and young people who are growing up never certain where they will be sheltered, go to school, see a doctor or know they will be warm and safe? The vision has been lost, along with notions of equity, down the ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have nots. The nation is becoming divided and the rift gets bigger, while politicians snipe at each other and spout platitudes.

Kiwis once had the worthy and somewhat heroic notion that we cared for the most vulnerable among us in a way that other countries envied. That vision is somewhat tarnished now but could still be given a shine if the politicians put aside their petty bickering and thought about the future, rather than just the next electoral cycle.

Terry Sarten is a social worker, writer and musician. Feedback: tgs@inspire.net.nz or www.telsarten.com

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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