In search of a more equal society

Good progress is not possible without greater equality, Dunedin North MP Dr David Clark said in his maiden speech in Parliament yesterday.

David Clark at the Star Meet the Candidates Forum before last November's election. Photo by Linda Robertson.
David Clark at the Star Meet the Candidates Forum before last November's election. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Government will always be with us. And as citizens, we must decide what kind of government we want.

In my view, Governments are elected to provide moral leadership, not just to manage the economy to achieve things like "market discipline" and "efficiency gains". Markets make excellent servants but terrible masters. Good regulation can harness markets to support people and their needs, rather than the other way around. We must take our destiny into our own hands and shape the economy to benefit all of New Zealand. In recent decades those benefits have been shared too unequally.

Politicians are elected to a life of public service. The service they are elected to - is leadership.

Leadership involves listening, discerning, assisting and decision-making.

Service should never be confused with servility.

Politicians ought not hide behind the term "service" awaiting a mandate of majority support on every issue, forgetting, or perhaps never realising, that the public have elected the politicians to do a job in good faith on their behalf.

Politicians do not exist to rubber-stamp what the electorate has already decided, but to articulate and share a vision of a better society.

I will describe the better society to which I aspire. It has similarities with what founding members of the New Zealand Labour Party described as an "applied Christianity".

It is a society where accident of birth does not dictate one's station and prospects. It is a society where every citizen can get ahead by dint of hard work that builds on their natural endowments.

It is one where all have free and equal access to high quality education: a society where all have the ability to develop their talents sufficient to ensure fulfilling and enriching lives.

It is one in which choices are not driven by fear, but are afforded by opportunity.

In which everyone has access to legal representation regardless of their means.

And the society I wish to live in recognises that prevention is better than cure. It has a health system with universal access: a trip to hospital doesn't require insurance or a chequebook.

Mr Speaker, I believe that more careful attention needs to be given to the prophylactic benefits of public health as compared to the resources required to attend to the illnesses of the dying, and the diseases of the worried well.

And to support our objectives, our economy must change and grow. We must recognise our dependence upon the primary sector, treasure and enhance it. But we must also diversify if we wish to be a prosperous nation.

As a small country far from markets, we must make some strategic decisions about the types of industry we wish to promote and support. The OECD recognises that we educate our kids well. We must leverage this learning for research, for innovation and for New Zealand's commercial gain.

Dunedin is already a base for firms with a strong technology component. Taylormade and Scott Technology are two of the most well-known. But there are other weightless exporters locally, like Pocketsmith, and 1000 minds. Squid gel, DNA sequencing and probiotics illustrate potential to commercialise science developed at Otago. We need more of this if we are going to prosper as a country.

I wish to concentrate the burden of my speech on one thing that is something of a pre-condition to good progress: greater equality.

Sadly, New Zealand has rushed towards greater inequality over the last 30 years.

The truly wealthy have grabbed a disproportionately large slice of the economic growth pie - at the expense of other New Zealanders. There is an urgent need to level an ever more slanted playing field. We need a broad-based and progressive taxation system that preserves the Kiwi dream of a country where a little talent and much hard work provide real opportunities to better one's lot.

Disparities in wealth create strange distortions and inefficiencies. My Christian upbringing instilled in me a strong sense of social justice. My theological education and my time as a Presbyterian minister have cemented that. That some people have many opportunities while others have few - just doesn't feel right. For me, this is a gut level response rooted in firmly held values.

A growing body of literature shows a correlation between societies with large inequalities and poor health, longevity and other social statistics. A more equal society means better quality of life. Generating the conditions for a more equal society is the right thing to do.

But it increasingly seems that it is also the pragmatic thing to do.

'Most well-known?'

'Most well-known', as an expression, would have to indicate the nadir of the use of the English language, yet, as used by Mr Clark here, it is increasingly used by those in TV and elsewhere; in many cases by those whose employment, supposedly, calls for words to be used to the best possible effect.

Has it never occurred to any of these people to substitute the perfectly adequate and far less cumbersome 'best-known'? 

Not so refreshing

We do not choose the nature of the government. The fact that I, among 4mil others, have an opinion, and an opportunity to voice it in some superficial way, means little. My fellow citizens know it, and can barely handle the courtesy of listening to me. No, choices are the sole purview of people who want to fake the reality of others by telling them what they want to hear in order to get elected. This system 'dumbs down' the electorate to a point where they are solely interested in material returns; whether they earn them legitimately, or extort concessions from politicians.

This guy is no 'new breed'; he is the boring old collectivist model.