Research out this week shows that New Zealanders aren't entirely comfortable giving too much help to those who need it – and a marketing strategist believes this finding could have a major impact at next year's election.
Rose Herceg, the chief strategy officer at advertising giant WPP AUNZ, calls it an inconvenient truth, showing that while New Zealanders might say they like to help others, this isn't always reflected in their actual societal and political positions.
She says the research of 1500 New Zealanders conducted by firm Colmar Brunton found many in the country believe that policies aimed at achieving equitable outcomes result in a lack of fairness, fuelling resentment toward those who benefit from the policies.
"This country is still a very kind place, but the notion of 'I've got to help myself before I help others' is starting to kick into this country and economy," she said.
While the kneejerk reaction might be to see this as a descent to selfishness, Herceg warns against framing the debate as "good vs bad", "us vs them" or "individual vs community" polemic which condemns the whole concept of self-interest as a right-wing problem.
A recent example of this was seen in the political punditry following the victory of Scott Morrison in the Australian election, with many of those claiming short-term selfishness from the right led to the election of the Liberal Party politician.
Herceg sees things differently.
"What Scott Morrison did so well was that he used one word over and over again - and that word was 'aspiration'," she says.
"He recognised that every single person likes the look of the next rung up the ladder. Everyone wants a better life, no matter where they started from. Whether they are part of the poorest or whether they're part of the top five per cent.
"The thing that he connected with so well was that people may not like everything the liberal party stands for, but the part they did love was that he was a vote for ambition. It's a very personal message."
The thing most striking to Herceg was that this message could just as easily have been delivered on the left – albeit in a slightly different way – given that the right doesn't have any exclusive claim to the idea of ambition.
As indicated by the representative demographic spread of the research, self-interest certainly doesn't come with a political banner. And those who might deny their self-interest in public could express slightly different views when confined to the privacy of the voting booth. Which is also part of the reason we are often shocked by results that don't correspond with pre-election polling.
"When push comes to shove, people will always vote for the idea that there will be a better tomorrow for me," Herceg says.
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"My nickel's worth of advice to any politician, whether they're running the country as Jacinda Ardern is or whether they are looking to come into power like National, is to come up with a new set of words to speak to the individual and explain how a group of strong individuals can build a stronger community.
"There needs to be a new conversation about individual rights and individual health versus that of community in a progressive and positive way rather than the negative light we see it in now."
She says it's important to jettison the idea that individualism is bad by default, and accept that every person, regardless of political persuasion, is driven by some degree of self-interest.
"There's nothing wrong with taking care of yourself and your immediate family first in certain circumstances, " she says, offering the airline example of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you.
She admits it's an odd analogy to use, but says it gets to the core of the idea that we are better equipped to help others when we are in good shape ourselves.
The problem is that there is a growing group of New Zealanders who aren't exactly in good enough shape to think about lending a helping hand to those a bit further down the ladder.
As one survey respondent pointed out: "When the Government says they've created one hundred thousand new jobs, I think – yeah and I've got three of 'em! I'm doing three different jobs to make ends meet. And I'm not the only one. All of my mates in this so-called gig economy are doing multiple jobs. And that's not even to get ahead, that's just to keep our heads above the water!"
Herceg says it's important not to overlook the impact of the gig economy on the psychology of workers in New Zealand today.
"The downside of being self-employed in this way is that you constantly have to worry about tomorrow's revenue or tomorrow's income. In that model, there's simply less time to be community-minded.
"In a nation of small businesses like New Zealand, it becomes exhausting and the time to think about big social or community issues simply becomes less."
This issue is set to become more pronounced in coming years, as companies increasingly look to change the way we work. Some of these changes will offer flexibility, but there is also a real risk that the worker protections that have been decades in the making could be unravelled. If this does happen those feelings of resentment toward those given a helping hand are only likely to increase in the future.
"You need individuals who have energy, money and intent leftover to put into issues that affect the community," she says.
If people don't have those things, then the influence of self-interest will only grow stronger.
The only question now is which political party will best be able to harness this latent energy come next year's election.
See the research here: