Importance of sharing our common wealth forgotten

The Rugby World Cup has predictably given rise to plenty of discussions about whether rugby is our national religion, or about its importance to our national identity.

Election proposals that run counter to the more fundamental values of being a New Zealander, however, have attracted far less discussion.

My son's imminent departure to Europe for his OE has stirred memories and provoked some reflection about the discoveries we make about our country and ourselves as we travel the globe. He is not only heading off into a much more uncertain world than I did 30-something years ago, but he is also leaving behind a vastly different country. What does being a New Zealander mean to a young traveller today?

Back then, on my own European pilgrimage, I was entranced by the age of Europe, as seen principally in buildings and towns that revealed century after century of love and ingenuity. I think my son will also be impressed, and maybe overawed as I initially was, by the comparative sophistication of the young European.

In spite of such evident European charm and accomplishment, however, the young New Zealander of the 1970s had no need to feel any sense of inferiority. Did we not come from an extraordinarily beautiful country with a new-found environmental awareness which would ensure ample clean water and protection of our natural treasures for generations to come?

And could we not feel justly proud of the legacy of our settler forebears, which taught us Jack was as good as his master and gave us innovative social legislation to match?

If anything, I felt a slight sense of pity for people trapped inside the crowded European continent, still struggling for social justice.

Tragically, within the space of one generation, I think we have lost that moral high ground. Our country, not so pristine now, reflects the deficiencies of resource management legislation which opens up land and waters to economic development, but largely leaves the responsibility of protecting and defending the environment to embattled bands of underfunded volunteers.

On the equality front, a look inside the covers of The spirit level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, shows that in our country these days Jack needs to be a whole lot better than his master, because he has such a raft of inequalities to overcome. With their United Nations-based statistics they show New Zealand now has the sixth-widest income gap between rich and poor in the developed world, and our index of health and social problems is right up there with other unequal countries.

So why, given this elevated level of existing disparity, is there not an avalanche of angry protest about the National Party's plans to sell off 49% of our country's best investments?

At the moment, every New Zealander, even the poorest or the homeless, has an equal stake in the companies producing energy from natural resources that belong to all of us. We have all invested in them through our taxes. The dividend stream flows through to the government and through it to services we all need. It would be hard to find a fairer model.

But now the National Party is effectively proposing to nearly halve our collective share in these companies, and sell off the appropriated 49% to those New Zealanders with the surplus to invest.

In contrast, those who lack that surplus - the unemployed, the low-waged, the struggling families and many young people - will be left with half the share and half the public dividend they had before. Enabling the haves at the expense of the have-nots is not what we think of as the New Zealand way.

There is a lot of talk about "mum and dad investors" buying up the energy shares, and there will certainly be lots of competition for them. Energy, the true foundation of our economy, is a very attractive investment for those who can afford it, especially when it is backed by a 51% government share.

Talk of KiwiSaver, ACC, investment banks, iwi, corporates and overseas investors being interested buyers will keep the price high and make it highly unlikely those dispossessed by these asset sales will ever be able to buy back their share.

Where is the fundamental fairness of this proposition?

Where is the Sir John McKenzie or the Michael Joseph Savage of our generation, the person who will fight for access for all to the wealth of the nation?

Sadly, the wisdom of those fine men about the importance of ensuring human dignity and sharing our common wealth has receded far into the past, usurped by a climate of short-sighted, self-seeking monetary gain.

John Key and his Government have said they will take re-election as a mandate for selling our assets. With most New Zealanders reportedly against asset sales, but with the National Party odds on to form the next government, the danger is that a vote for the National Party will be a vote for asset sales. And, of course, the National Government prefers to focus on how we can divvy up the spoils, rather than discussing the fundamental social justice issue.

I hope that, while he is overseas, my son may still find some pride in being a New Zealander. Here at home, however, I think we have a battle on our hands to prevent the social justice embodied in our national identity from being buried, without discussion or fight, in a slickly managed election campaign, conducted with about the same speed and depth of thought as a fast-food transaction.

Alison MacTavish lives near Moeraki.

 

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