COMMENT: Rural New Zealand, we are told, is on suicide watch. The rate of people in rural areas dying at their own hand has risen 17 per cent, says the Ministry of Health, compared to a drop of 7 per cent in urban areas. This is frightening.
Drought, floods, frightening diseases like M bovis, and the bank, the bank, always the bloody bank. And those figures are from 2016, before the current Government, before its proposed changes to water regulations and measures to address climate change. So many farmers are in despair.
You can take sides in all this. Other people are just plain wrong, and you can believe it, you can know it. But isn't that beside the point? We're conducting debates about the future of this country and all its citizens, and some of them are feeling so hopeless they choose suicide as the way out.
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We can't be doing it like this. There are some who revel in the language of a "culture war", who want to stir up town vs country hatred, who tell us this is all about one side blaming the other. But it isn't. We're all in this together. So let's be together.
Farmers aren't the only ones on suicide watch, or the most at risk. Comparisons may be odious, but the Māori rate is well over twice that for farmers and the teenage rate is three times worse. Odious, grisly comparisons.
This country is not in good shape. The Ministry of Social Development reported last year that food hardship grants had doubled in the previous two years. The Auckland City Mission had its busiest winter ever.
The Government's Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) said the welfare system was so broken, it needed an extra $5.2 billion a year.
Blame the Government? That seems facile. Aren't these problems far deeper?
We're in the middle of a construction boom and construction companies are going out of business.
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We have a low-wage economy and the only voice – the only voice – raised against it is the unions. Who have very little power.
Hospitals are now performing 1000 amputations per year. Because of diabetes, which is caused by obesity, and there is no nationwide plan to combat that. There is also no nationwide outrage.
And more. We suffer from a corrosive anxiety, still, about Māori aspirations. We fear immigrants, even as our economy relies on them.
Voter numbers are falling, all seven of our major mainstream media companies are struggling and two have made it clear they may not survive. Social media, feverish, righteous and mocking, has flooded our daily thoughts.
We have an ugly culture of male violence. Toxic masculinity. Rape culture. If you doubt this, what would you like to call it? And we have no idea what to do about it. The police say "family harm" incidents now account for 40 per cent of callouts.
We have decided that children at risk of abuse cannot be left with those who put them at risk, and also that it is wrong to take children from their mothers. There is no apparent pathway out of the immeasurably angry and upsetting conflicts this sets up, so, instead, quite a lot of the time, we blame the social workers.
Blaming the people working desperately on the frontline, that's a symptom of crisis right there.
And what's next? Our economy is based on two industries: dairy and tourism. They have a common denominator: it's called climate change. Without major reforms they will both be swept away.
But we could invent those reforms, couldn't we? Who better in the world? We could decide to fix so much of what is so obviously broken. Couldn't we?
In 2017, we elected a Government that said it wanted to do that. "Transformation" was the word, and all three parties in the coalition signed up to it.
Now it's election year again. Far less than we expected has changed. Why? What happened?
The answer is in Māngere. Actually, it's everywhere, but let's start there.
In November last year, new Housing Minister Kris Faafoi was in Ventura St, just near the Māngere town centre, to open some state houses. They're among the first of what will become 10,000 new homes built in the suburb by Kainga Ora, formerly Housing New Zealand.
These new homes have been built well, with big eaves, proper weatherboard cladding, long-run pitched roofs and, like all new Kainga Ora homes, a Homestar 6 rating. They're warm, dry and built to last, clustered around small lanes where the lighting is solar-powered and movement sensitive. No overhead lines, broadband to every dwelling.
Faafoi talked about how important this project was and how much further they are committed to going. In Auckland alone, Kainga Ora is also building another 10,000 new homes in Mt Roskill, 10,000 in Tamaki, 1500 in Northcote, 1200 in Onehunga and thousands more in smaller groupings throughout the city.
Mostly, they're a mix: state or social housing, plus affordable and market value homes. The theory is that mixed communities are more resilient, better for everyone.
At Ventura St, Andrew McKenzie, Kainga Ora's chief executive, said "a quality home is the foundation of people's lives", and it's true. When you and your children are warm, dry and safe, all your other social aspirations – in health, education, work, community relations – become so much more possible.
Ventura St now has three times as many homes as it used to have, but in itself it's a very small step forward. Why, after two years of a reforming Government, proudly committed from the get-go to providing better homes for those in need, has this taken so long?
Hint: it's not the minister.
Vui Mark Gosche, a director of Kainga Ora, who was at the launch, provided two other reasons. "Give us the money," he said bluntly to Faafoi. What they're doing is funded, but not well enough.
"Or," Gosche added, "let us borrow. There are lots of people who want to lend." As so many others have said, the Government's determined adherence to "responsible" debt management, despite the advice of almost everyone, has hobbled progress in the entire social sector.
This was a few weeks before Finance Minister Grant Robertson finally announced they would implement a change to the debt policy and spend billions more on infrastructure. Even so, it is not clear that much of the new spending will go towards housing.
Aupito William Sio, the local MP and Minister for Pacific Peoples, revealed a third reason for the Government's slow progress. "This project has brought the community together," he said. But it wasn't always like that. "It was quite disruptive, for many years."
People lost their homes and some of them moved away, never to return. Kainga Ora talks about "managed transition" but it's not easy. Most people fear change and sometimes with good reason. Construction disrupts the lives of everyone it touches.
Managing transition slows things down, but for a good reason: it means taking the time to help the community through the change.
Later, the officials revealed the biggest reason progress on new social housing has been so slow. "Everywhere we go," project director Shannon Tapp explained, "there's asbestos, there's lead, the stormwater and sewage systems don't work, sometimes there's hardly anything there. This land was poisonous. What we're doing is fixing that. The land we hand over is clean and clear and it will be for the next 100 years."
Tapp's boss, Auckland regeneration GM Mark Fraser, put it this way: "We're upgrading the suburb in its entirety, and most of that is the work we're doing underground."
The underground power lines in Ventura St are nothing special: that's the standard approach to all new developments. But while it's easy enough on a greenfields site on the edge of town, building 100-year resilience with underground services in the old suburbs where everything is badly broken is a major undertaking.
Yet those suburbs are where the need for new housing is greatest.
"Why haven't we gone faster?" said Fraser. "It's infrastructure. It costs money and it slows us down."
There's more, of course. Costs in the construction industry are crippling for buyers and many construction companies alike. Bank lending rules are often unhelpful. There's a shortage of skilled workers. Regulations to help off-site (prefab) construction have been woefully slow, despite the revolutionary potential of that technology.
And yes, the former minister of housing, Phil Twyford, turned out to be bad at managing expectations. Boy, was that ever true.
We measure progress by counting houses, and so far the Government hasn't built nearly enough of them. But it's the wrong measure.
The striking thing about the first term of this Government has not been the lack of action, but the depth of the economic and social problems it faces. There's a crisis like Māngere housing, requiring a "below ground up" solution, in almost every field, almost everywhere you look.
Schools, primary healthcare and hospitals, employment relations, welfare, transport, resource management, justice and corrections, regional development, city building, freight strategy, rural resilience, energy. Decades of systemic neglect, all over the show.
To measure success, we should be asking about process. Have they geared their decision-making to deliver social-good outcomes yet? How well do they work with communities in transition? Have they embraced innovation, with new technologies and new ways of working? Have they introduced a change culture with service at its heart?
Can they make decisions? And can they scale it all up, from the street to the suburb, to the town, to every community that needs their help?
Two years is almost no time at all. But we keep counting houses, which certainly matters but is not the only thing that matters, and we keep blaming the politicians for not doing enough. Especially if they've been so bold or foolish as to boast about their transformational targets.
It's so much easier to do government the old way. Do nothing unless you absolutely have to, unless the polls say you absolutely have to. Project absolute confidence. From 1993 to 2017, we've had 25 years of being governed like that.
In housing, the old way was to leave Māngere to rot and find unencumbered new areas to build flash new houses for those who could afford them. It beggars belief, but when the current Government came into office that's what nearly the entire house construction sector was doing. What an outrage.
In housing, as in so much more. We are a society in pain and somebody wants it this way. Somebody is working hard to keep this crisis going. It's not hard to know who.
We got our last big dose of reform in the 10 years from 1984, under David Lange and Roger Douglas' crusading fourth Labour Government, and then under National by finance minister Ruth Richardson, until her boss Jim Bolger called time in 1993 and removed her from the portfolio.
Back then it was called monetarism, or Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. Now, we know it as neoliberalism. The market would rule, but there were few qualms about fixing the market so it ruled in the right way.
Many of the neoliberal reforms strengthened New Zealand, economically and socially. But as Lange and Bolger both belatedly recognised, they also brought devastating hardship. Nobody managed the process to maximise the good and minimise the harm: we just got the lot.
Those who might have smoothed the way were marginalised and broken, and not by accident. Over time, the evisceration of unions gave the economy a new foundation: a low-wage, transient workforce whose very physical safety was judged expendable.
Large parts of the public service had their capacity to be a public service stripped from them. Public assets like electricity were lost to the public. Benefit levels were slashed and have still not been restored.
The justification for all this was that wealth would be created and it would flow through all of society. The first part happened; the second, we now know, was a fraud.
The gap between the wealthy and the poor has escalated – and this is not a thing that always was. For most of the 20th century, here and elsewhere, that gap was reduced. But in the past few decades, we've hypercharged our way back into the 19th century.
Surely to no one's surprise, this means we have also rendered ourselves unfit to face what's coming. Consider the electricity "market", a mechanism rigged in the 1990s to align the spot price of all power to the price of the most expensive generation source. Generation companies are incentivised to burn gas and coal, even though hydro is far cheaper.
The result? They burn more coal than they need to and we pay too much for our power. And, embedded in the economy, that pricing mechanism for a vital resource actively prevents our building a greener future. What the hell?
At this point it seems reasonable to blame the Grocery Council.
Not for everything, that would be excessive. But think about those 1000 amputations a year, because of diabetes. That's people eating too much sugar.
Price is the most effective market signal we have, but the Government has said it's not going to introduce a sugar tax. The only possible justification for this would be that it has a better plan to reduce the sugar intake in the national diet.
But it doesn't. A sugary drinks ban in schools? Nope. What about, not even a ban, just a big incentivised programme to help schools provide kids with milk and water instead of sugary drinks? Some schools already do this and they report remarkable progress in the health of their children – and of those children's families.
But, sorry, nope. Although the Minister of Health, David Clark, thinks this would be a good thing, the Government is not doing it.
For years now, it's as if the Grocery Council, representing the makers of sugary drinks, has had the Government stuffed into a little bottle with the stopper on tight.
Look around the economy: they are not alone.
This is one of the enduring legacies of the neoliberal reforms: even when the social damage is obvious and overwhelming, corporates are not called to account.
No New Zealand government since the mid-1990s has genuinely tried to change this.
Instead, largely, they have been content to patch up the worst of the problems. Rather than trying to build a high-wage economy, Helen Clark's Labour Government introduced Working for Families, which pays a top-up to the working poor. John Key's National Government protested long and loud and then kept it in place.
Instead of tackling the absurdity of the electricity market, the current Government introduced a Winter Energy Payment.
The top-ups and rebates are valuable, but they don't address the deeper problem.
Bolger, Clark and Key and all made a virtue of structural inaction. Clark's government tended to be more compassionate with it, as Labour governments are wont to be, but Key's Finance Minister Bill English was responsible for the greater movement in benefits.
The current Government said they would go deeper. But transformation is difficult if you're not attempting structural reform to the economy. And the Government is seriously conflicted about that.
Its quaint adherence to neoliberal ideas about debt management, criticised by Fui Mark Goshe at Kainga Ora, was proof of that.
In the governing coalition, the minor parties on the whole have been braver. NZ First's Provincial Growth Fund is the first serious attempt since the 1980s to bring economic life and hope to depressed provincial New Zealand.
The Zero Carbon Act, conjured into law by Greens co-leader James Shaw, has the potential to become a remarkable piece of anti-neoliberal future proofing. It focuses on process, it is built on consensus and it commits to integrated economic and environmental planning in ways that are often talked about but very seldom realised.
It's a platform for transformation, which is not the same as saying the change has already happened. It's the necessary first step.
In some areas Labour has also led a process of real change: that new undergrounded resilience in Māngere is another platform for transformation. There's similar work underway in justice and corrections, education, health and, indeed, economic management. The "wellbeing" Budget could become a remarkable platform for transformation.
In other areas, though, Labour has simply said no. That $5.2 billion the advisory group said was desperately needed in welfare? Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said yes to precisely 1 per cent of it. By year's end it seemed the rest had been quietly buried.
Meanwhile in transport, the minister, poor Phil Twyford, is getting it in the neck all over again for delays to light rail in Auckland. It's true he promised "spades in the ground" by now, but it's also clear that project requires a new and extremely robust process to be created, and that really does take time, and on top of that he was obstructed by officials all year long in 2018.
Twyford has reorganised the lines of authority, and the process is now back on track. That's a good thing.
That same story that can be told in other parts of Government, too. So why have they got so little to show? For all the reasons, see above. And there's more.
NZ First has been a drear handbrake on progress, despite the gains it's won in its own chosen fields. And the Prime Minister herself, Jacinda Ardern, has turned out to be very risk averse. A liberal with naturally conservative instincts.
Both those factors came together to crush the proposal for a capital gains tax. NZ First said no and Ardern decided not to even put up a fight. Perhaps the politics of that was sensible: the Government held together and moved on. Or perhaps it was not: a chance was lost for Labour to proclaim how transformational it was trying to be.
Is it good the Government rejected the Roger Douglas mantra: if you move fast enough no one will have time to stop you? On balance, yes.
But if the Government is to win a second term, it cannot remain so timid. We should assume the platforms have been set. All those large swathes of our citizenry who feel abandoned, who do not share in the hope for this country, deserve better. There is too much to do and it is time to be brave.