Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Neo-Liberalism is Killing Our Country

New Zealand's political history is interesting.  What is particularly interesting is when we go back to the year I was born:  1975.  Muldoon was in government, and he was in government until 1984.  A lot of people hated the guy.  He was rude and controlling and a bit of a bully towards his staff.  Nevertheless, despite being a National Government, this was a time where economic equality was supported by government policies.  This is a great documentary series if you're interested to know a little more of New Zealand's significant political shifts between the 70's and the 90's:

What was ironic about the Labour Government that followed and led by David Lange is that despite being historically left-leaning, the likes of Richard Prebble and Roger Douglas formed key roles in this government as part of the Labour Party - a party that they would later leave to form the most politically right-wing party in New Zealand to this day (known as The Act Party).  What followed that Labour government - politically mirroring the UK at the time was a long Tory leadership favouring neo-liberalism.  This leadership would only be broken by a Labour Government targeting politically centrist voters with a "Third Way" approach - a concept Labour adopted as a means to get in power.  They abandoned their more "left" ideals that gave voice to the minorities and to the socially disadvantaged and became more neutral in their policy stances in order to get into power.  They believed it was better that they were in power and therefore had the ability to create a little bit of change than to forever be the opposition and without the power to make any changes at all.  What this meant for New Zealand was that the effects of neo-liberalism from a National Government were not undone but for the most part continued by a Labour Government.

Caricature of Labour PM in the
1980's, David Lange

What is Neo-Liberalism?

Neo-Liberalism is a sub-group of Conservatism - which values tradition, cleaves to ideas that have been "tested through time" and which promote security and stability.  Abstract thoughts and principles are distrusted and faith is placed in experience and pragmatism.  Invariably, conservatives believe that human beings are corrupted by selfishness, greed and the thirst for power and therefore, Government is needed for the enforcement of strict laws and harsh penalties.  They believe that a hierarchy of social position and status is a natural part of organic society, that a person's "station in life" is a product of luck or "accident of birth" and that those more privileged have a duty to care for the "less fortunate."  While this seems noble, it stems from a belief that not all are equal and not all should be given the right to equality.  They have values in families as the "fabric of society" and that property is vital to security and stability and independence from Government. 

Liberalism does not value collectivism.  It values the individual.  It has the belief that we are "all born equal" and therefore it is through our own merits that we should be rewarded (meritocracy).  It is anti-welfare state. In fact, it supports the idea that there should be very little Government intervention at all.  

It it is a combination of these two schools of thought that New Zealand finds itself currently being governed under a National government.  Quite aside from the fact that these political ideologies are being enforced by politicians who are predominantly white, male, middle-upper class (in our Prime Minister's example - upper class) who are baby-boomers that have experienced free education and never experienced social struggle themselves, their policies are bound to come from a place borne not of experience or even of knowledge.

Consequently, under a National Government and a "Third Way" Labour Government, since the 1980's New Zealand has experienced

  • Sole parents who are now forced to go out to work when their child turns three years old if they are on the sole parent benefit and forced to go to work when their child is one year old if they became pregnant whilst on a benefit.  In terms of available jobs, in terms of quality childcare provisions for children, in terms of child attachment vital to their wellbeing in the first three years with a primary caregiver - what implications will this have?  
  • National Government MP Paula Bennett restricted the Training Incentive Allowance available to beneficiaries to a Level 3 or below (ie. school-leaver or [at most] certificate-level courses that would at best provide a beneficiary with nothing more than a minimum-wage job upon completion.
  • Student Loans:  Since the early 1990's, following the completion of a degree, a 20 year old invariably has a student loan debt of around $20,000.  They start their adult-life with debt and no assets.  Not so for the student whose parents can afford their education.  So those young people seeking education to improve their circumstances whose families cannot afford university fees are in debt immediately as a young adult and financially penalised paying it off compared to those young adults from wealthier families who start their career without debt.  In this way, it seems an "additional tax" to youth from middle-lower socio-economic backgrounds.
  • The selling of state-owned-enterprises.  Not only has this reduced long-term income for New Zealand (at what gain?  We are only more in debt than ever before!) but it has also meant that private companies maximise their profits for the most basic utilities provided to New Zealanders including electricity supply and telephone.  (Even the cost of public transport is set by private companies which has an impact on public use, roading issues and traffic congestion.)
  • Wages and benefits have not kept up with inflation so that beneficiaries are now in very real poverty but wage-earners are also significantly struggling - particularly when the minimum wage in this country is on par with the income of beneficiaries.
  • An invalid's benefit is increasingly difficult to obtain.  Originally, this benefit provided for people with genuine disabilities and illnesses that prevented them from working or made it very difficult for them to find suitable work that would make allowances for their health/disability needs.  This means that they are now forced to go on a sickness benefit instead.  Despite their long-term illness/disability which creates its own set of stressors, they have to renew their sickness benefit with a doctor's visit, application forms and WINZ visits every three months.  Most recently, the National Government has required this from patients with cancer, undergoing chemotherapy and even terminally ill patients. 
  • Through its Welfare Reforms, the National Government currently enforces punitive measures in a bid to motivate beneficiaries to find work.  As a result, we have the most poorest, the most sick, the most vulnerable in our country under a considerable amount of stress and barely able to make ends meet.  
  • In 2014 the NZ Herald reported on Child Poverty rates increasing by 60,000.  New Zealand saw reports from Campbell Live from low decile schools where children who had no breakfast, also had no lunch.  Many of the children talked about going to bed hungry at night simply because there was not enough food in the house.  How are these hungry children expected to break the cycle of poverty in their own life through education when their brain is not able to learn due to insufficient nourishment?
  • There have been funding cuts to health and funding cuts to social services so that even when the Government is not providing assistance, charities who are scrambling to address the gaps are struggling also to do so for resources to enable them to do their work, and many are having to close their doors.  Even Government services themselves are so restricted by budgets that they struggle to provide adequate care to the most vulnerable in our society.  An example is the Maternal Mental Health service on the North Shore of Auckland having to regularly "close their doors" and not accepting any more referrals of mothers with young babies with severe psychiatric illnesses.
  • Young families, middle-class families are struggling to get on the property ladder.  Buying their first home in an area where they can also find employment has become virtually impossible for first-time buyers.  Meanwhile, landlords sometimes have a portfolio of eight or more houses which they rent out at exorbitant prices.  In Auckland, gone are the days where you make an arrangement to view a rental property at your own convenience - instead, you turn up to an appointment that is an "open home" with 20-25 applicants viewing it - many of whom carry with them a CV, references and cash to cover bond and weeks of rent in advance.  How does a sole parent with a couple of kids on a benefit fare with this kind of competition?  The alternative for that sole parent is to get on the waiting list of Housing NZ.  Housing NZ are struggling to provide homes for these families, and when a home is provided, they are invariably poorly insulated with mould present in most rooms and children living there struggling with respiratory illnesses.  We only have to look at child poverty statistics to see the connection between poor housing conditions and respiratory illness, pneumonia, hospitalisations and yes, even death.
  • Even things like our mental health policies are very much in support of general education and awareness promotion so that those with mental illness can help themselves and access help themselves.  This is a nonsense.  As anyone working in the sector will tell you, those with mental illness suffer a great many barriers to getting help - not least of which is the illness itself which can be so debilitating that things like insight, motivation and problem-solving skills are affected.  So what happens then is that there is a reduction in people accessing services that really need to and health statistics worsen on the other end of the scale so that we are forever having to deal with the casualties at the bottom of the cliff instead of investing in prevention.
  • 1 in 3 women are in a domestic violent relationship.  Our child abuse statistics are some of the worst in the western world.
I have really only just touched on some of the social issues we have been experiencing over the last 30 years.... this list is in-exhaustive, but this is what the values of neo-liberalism does to our society.  It favours those who already have so much, who were "lucky enough" to be born into a set of circumstances.  It hurts and does not help the most vulnerable.  The reality is that we are not born on an equal playing field.  Some of us are born into a set of circumstances that go against us before we're even born.  Children born with foetal alcohol syndrome, children with disabilities, children with alcoholism or mental illness in their genetic makeup, children who experience insecure attachment with their parents, children who suffer from abuse.... the list goes on and on and on.  The outcomes for these children as they grow into adulthood and contribute to society - research clearly tells us - is very often things like addictions, delinquency, learning difficulties, mental illness, poor education outcomes (leaving school early after struggling at school), crime, imprisonment, unemployment, abusive relationships, divorce, the list goes on and on.

Our kids are getting sicker, our families are getting poorer, our social issues are getting worse.  

What is the Answer?

I don't think that there is one answer - I think there are many answers and that there needs to be many discussions to explore solutions.  Many NZ young people see how futile our political system has been at taking care of its people and I have to agree with them that there seems little point in voting when the two main parties are so similar and all the Labour party achieves is to slow down the slow chipping away of our society.  On the one hand, I see where the likes of Russell Brand is coming from in protesting voting.  It really does feel like a revolution is needed.  However, not voting won't work.  There will always be people that will vote and all it will mean is that those that continue to vote, continue to be represented.

Voting is imperative.  It is the one time where we all have equal power.  Every race, every ethnicity, every gender, old, young, disabled, rich, poor, middle-classed are all on equal footing and each of their votes have the same value as someone else's.  That is very powerful and it should not be wasted - particularly when other countries do not permit a particular ethnicity or gender to vote or there is simply no democratic process.

So What Will You Do With Your Vote?

I don't believe that the neo-liberal policies of the national party support Christian values in any way.  I don't believe that the Labour party's "third way" will adequately address the increasing social issues we are experience now with child poverty rates doubled between 1984 and 2008 and showing no improvement ever since National's election in the same year.  We will continue to see the slow social decline of our country unless we vote for a party that represents policies that will actively address these social issues.  By (party) voting for the Green Party, we are voting for a Labour-Green coalition where Labour can represent "middle" New Zealand with their fairly neutral social policies, while the Green Party will represent New Zealanders who want to see social policies that are actually going to have an impact on these social issues.

I challenge you to have a really good think about what you support and what values they represent.  I challenge you to consider what your duty is as a follower of Christ to the poor and to the marginalised.  

Christians Believe They Support Social Justice - But Do They?

Definition of Social Justice:

"Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges within a society."

If you believe you support social justice, then you cannot support neo-liberalism.  Neo-liberalism will take pity on the poor but they accept that a social hierarchy (or class system) is okay - that some people having lots and some people having very little as a result of what family they were born (what gender/race/ethnicity/country it turned out to be) is okay.

In the end, inequality doesn't affect just those who are disadvantaged, it affects all of society.  

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