These days, I’m a privileged bungalow-dweller living in Epsom. But I spent the first 18 years of my life in Kawerau, which in those days was a vibrant town — full of jobs, shops, and aroha.
For the past 30-odd years, we’ve seen the effects of Rogernomics and the downsizing of the mill. Unemployment rates have been as high as 30 per cent, with total welfare recipients more than double that. Many folks lost hope years ago — hope, for many, filled by the Mob (I have relations who are third generation members) and methamphetamine.
Now we do have some hope, just a glimmer, and it comes via the Provincial Growth Fund and progressive iwi.
Much of the criticism of the Provincial Growth Fund comes from the same people who attack the government for delegating too much decision-making authority to working groups, complaining they’re not delivering enough on core promises.
But here’s one example where the government is injecting new money into areas where it’s desperately needed, and doing so quickly. Will every grant be a winner? Of course not. But let’s not make perfect the enemy of the good.
Let’s be honest. Both sides of politics abandoned the provinces last century. This is the first injection of capital in a long time. If critics of the fund are saying we should go back to a time when nothing ever got off the ground outside the main centres, count me out.
In my hometown, where my heart lies and where I shall be buried next to my whānau, there is renewed hope, a new board mill, an added-value milk factory, and an innovative food hub on the way. And my nephew now has a full-time job, won’t be tempted to join the Mob, and will escape the bogeyman Meth. He has hope, and his 80-year-old nanny — my mum — shares that hope.
Even as new opportunities come to places like Kawerau, parts of the population are poorly placed to seize them. These are people affected by drug and alcohol addiction, as well as families that have subsisted on government benefits — sometimes for generations.
Economic progress ebbs and flows but, for a small number, poverty has become a permanent fact of life.
In Kawerau, this is primarily true among some Māori. Under both National and Labour-led governments, we have come to tolerate this state of affairs. As long as the country’s economic engine is humming, we turn a blind eye to a fraction of the population who have completely given up even trying to participate.
We pay weekly benefits, as well as the salaries of cops, wardens and social workers, oblivious to the long-term damage to our moko of raising them to believe so little in their future. This is a tragedy we have tolerated for too long.
But why do we accept it, as a nation, as Māori, as human beings? Largely, I suspect, because we’ve come to accept the fallacy that pockets of endemic poverty are a sad but inevitable feature of a modern economy.
I meet far too many families whose members have much to offer, brimming with energy, left stranded by struggling schools, the absence of jobs, intergenerational poverty and welfare dependency. The communities in which they live are stuck in a malignant mire that leads to crime, addiction and, ultimately, despair.
Our current political discourse makes matters worse by forcing us into the straitjacket of outdated ideological stances. Too often, on the left, the individual’s agency is set aside in favour of blaming the government or society at large. On the right, the temptation to ignore or dismiss such factors outright is no less wrongheaded.
Every Kiwi, whatever their circumstances, should face the consequences of his or her actions. We all must live within the law, look after our kids, play within the rules.
But politicians who seek to exonerate themselves for their failed policies by demonising the victims of their neglect are taking the way-too-easy-road. Most New Zealanders, the vast majority, understand that the social contract implicit in our democracy is a two-way street. Hand-wringing without action is nothing more than empty virtue-signalling. Blame without responsibility is no better.
We’ve heard a lot in recent times about the unequal distribution of wealth, and for good reason. Statistics New Zealand, in June 2016, found that the richest 10 per cent of Kiwis control half of the country’s wealth. More shockingly, the poorest 40 per cent own just three per cent — that’s more than 600,000 households making do on a pittance.
Is there anyone outside the steel and glass high-rises of high finance who find that acceptable? For most Kiwis, this disparity confirms what we’ve already sensed between the haves and the have-nots over several decades. It’s seriously out of whack for a nation that prides itself on our egalitarian values.
Blame National if that’s your cup of tea. Or point the finger at Labour if you’d prefer. But, ultimately, the facts are the facts.
However badly past governments have dropped the ball, we need to focus on how to stem and reverse the tide towards a two-track economy — one for the super-rich, and the other for those trapped in struggler’s gully, condemned to casual work, a fingernail away from yet another Baycorp letter or a dodgy high-interest personal loan.
There are other manifestations of inequality at work in today’s New Zealand. Most glaringly, we see the overwhelming focus on Auckland, which attracts the lion’s share of infrastructure investment, skilled migration and population growth as Kiwis head there from depressed regions. This Auckland-centric approach has been another bipartisan phenomenon, adopted no less eagerly by Labour as National.
Meanwhile, too many households in Kawerau subsist on meagre handouts to supplement inadequate wages. Job-creating businesses, even with the best will in the world, cannot square their desire to invest in these parts of New Zealand once they encounter substandard infrastructure and a labour force often hopelessly ill-equipped for the modern workplace.
For policymakers in Wellington or merchant bankers in Auckland, it’s been a cinch to ignore. It’s a classic case of “out of sight, out of mind”, perhaps no better illustrated than by the ease with which we stood by and tolerated the emergence of “zombie towns”. As long as the welfare state picks up the tab, why bother with the tough slog of reform?
The Provincial Growth Fund attracts more than its share of attacks from the very same forces who created, then ignored, Third World living conditions in places like my hometown. To them, it makes no earthly sense for the government to “pick winners” or attempt to kickstart uneconomic parts of the country. To them, it’s easy to dismiss this as a political lolly scramble, and cast funding decisions as graft and favouritism.
It helps their narrative that the responsible minister, Shane Jones, is Māori, inviting some fairly thinly veiled racial tropes about our capacity to steward resources. The constant barrage of criticism aimed at the PGF reflects the degree to which it represents a threat to decades of neoliberal consensus around the role of government in the economy. There is a lot riding on its failure.
In the same way that the PGF challenges the prevailing thinking on economic development policy, the Coalition Government is well placed to demonstrate new and innovative approaches to address poverty at the level of community and household.
This would mean identifying social policy initiatives less wedded to the one-size-fits-all approach of the past and present. It would entail deeper and more meaningful partnerships across government agencies — as well as between the public and not-for-profit sectors. It would entail utilising these partnerships, along with big data, to allow the government to pre-empt, remediate and redress particular social problems, when and where they arise.
It requires a nimble and multi-disciplinary approach that offers families stuck in a cycle of welfare dependency whatever they need to begin forging a new and better path — for their own betterment, as well as for their wider whānau and community.
Punitive approaches will fail, and serve no purpose other than giving opportunistic politicians practice at punching down. But tolerating a status quo that sweeps entrenched disadvantage under the carpet is only marginally less cruel.
Too many on the progressive side of politics have been afraid to tackle these kinds of reform — but if we don’t, you can bet conservatives will pick up the slack.
Now is the time for the government to strike. Unemployment is comparatively low, the economy is in decent shape, and the budget is in tip-top shape. Before consigning welfare reform once more to the too-hard basket, Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens need to ask themselves: “If not now, when? And if not us, who?”
Shane Te Pou (Tūhoe, Ngāti Raka hapū) is one of eight children, born and raised in the mill town of Kawerau. As a 1966 baby, he counts himself lucky to have grown up at a time when there was virtually no unemployment and everyone had a house. Shane joined the Labour Party when he was 14, and was a trade union official for 10 years. He is no longer a member of any political party but has supported candidates and issues across the political spectrum.