A real leader would tackle the shameful disgrace of poverty — I’m just not sure the vote will deliver one.
Dear John and David.
Please forgive the first-name familiarity. I'm older than you are so it doesn't feel terribly out of order. The offices you hold probably entitle you to the dignity of honorifics, I know, but this is by way of a personal letter.
You'll be looking forward to the weekend and the end of campaigning. It must be tiring for you, this triennial charade. I'm picking it must be tiresome, too, competing to make the bigger promises, knowing that you won't have to keep them because you'll always be able to say that unforeseen circumstances, etc.
I first voted in the 1972 election, so I'm old enough now to find campaign season bleakly funny. People unnoticed or ignored for years suddenly become policy targets because they have been identified by strategists as buttons that must be pushed. Promises can be bad policy but good politics, because in your game, at this time, outflanking your opponent is everything.
You know this, and we all know it too, but everyone plays along because everyone knows that the business of getting elected has nothing to do with the business of governing.
Leading the country is a big deal. Yet campaigns never fire voters' imaginations and I doubt that they fire yours either. When political leaders appear in public, onlookers shift from foot to foot uncomfortably. They don't cheer. Nobody cheers any more, except cheerleaders, because the currency of politics has become degraded. It's all strategy now; principle is a quaint, old-fashioned notion.
I'm not one to routinely denigrate politicians as self-interested, power-hungry bludgers with snouts in the public trough. I have a lot of respect for you and most of your parliamentary colleagues. You work long hours for relatively little return and I believe that you started out driven by the notion of public service. But I know I'm not alone in wondering whether the institution of government lost the plot some time ago.
I don't want anything from you this election. I'm not a wealthy man, but I have what I need: a home of my own, a decent income, a bit saved up. But a huge and increasing number of my compatriots cannot dream of ever saying that. They can't dream of even saying they have enough to make it through to the next payday or benefit day.
I mourn for the country I grew up in, which was a place where the welfare of each of us was important to all of us. In those days, none of us would have put up with the stuff we now accept as routine: people - including kids going to school - are hungry unless the not-for-profit sector feeds them using the charitable dollar; children getting sick, some of them with Third World diseases, because they live in sub-standard housing, and staying sick because they can't get to the doctor.
The word "poverty" is cemented in our vocabulary now. Poverty. In New Zealand, for heaven's sake. It has displaced that noxious euphemism "socio-economic disadvantage", so at least we're naming it. But fundamentally we are consenting to it as an acceptable level of casualty in the forced march to prosperity.
Worse than that, many New Zealanders seem not to care. At worst, they explicitly scorn the poor - lecturing them on lifestyle and saying they "make choices" to be poor. At best, they shrug, because they've got problems of their own: soaring house prices and energy bills, and wages declining in real terms.
This is a country in need of leadership now, and that is something that a mere election victory cannot confer. A real leader would claim the mandate to say that every single thing he did in government would be dedicated to making sure that everybody had a fair go because that's the New Zealand way.
That would be an immediate priority, not the "aspirational" intention of a long-term strategy. The trickle-down mantra about how corporate growth will benefit everyone is threadbare now that we've been hearing it here for at least 25 years. If corporate success really improved the lives of those at the bottom of the economic heap, wouldn't it have happened by now?
What if leadership meant saying that there's no acceptable level of poverty? Are you up for that? Can you make a stand in favour of everybody having enough and nobody having too much? When the lights are turned off on Saturday and the streamers taken down, that will be all that matters, won't it? If not, why not?
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