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...
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.

I believe a fairer society also makes economic sense. Here are four reasons why.

First: resources shared across society mean that all people are trained and available to make their best contribution to society. In New Zealand more than one in five children is born into poverty.

These kids have to battle the odds. They are more likely to suffer from diseases of poverty, less likely to succeed in the education system, and have higher chances of ending up in our prisons. For our country to get ahead, we need all our children to realise their potential.

Greater equality is good for a second reason. If we remunerate talent by valuing professions that support the whole of society, rather than those that preserve the interests of a wealthy few, we all benefit. Neurosurgeons and teachers give more to society than great brains wasted on exploiting distortions in poorly regulated financial markets.

A third reason that greater equality makes pragmatic sense relates to public investment. Infrastructure is an example: witness growth in China's high-speed rail network. It's 12 times bigger than it was in 2008, four times larger than that in any other country, and still growing at an astonishing rate. It is hard to imagine this happening in the USA today.

Where a critical mass of the truly wealthy exert undue influence on the political process, investment, in infrastructure, education, research, healthcare and other matters related to the common good, dwindles. And we all suffer. In any society with extremes of wealth and poverty, the truly wealthy cease to value common assets; able to buy what they desire, they have no need for them.

A fourth reason why more equal societies tend to be more successful is that people work harder when they know the rules of society are fair. When everyone who does a fair day's work can live well; when it is always possible for someone born in a family of modest means to be successful in their chosen field, they are more likely to strive so to do. In New Zealand today, the poverty of spirit that can result from birth into deprivation often has more far-reaching societal consequences than those symptoms measured more immediately and with greater statistical ease.

Mr Speaker, a more equal society that shares the benefits of a Western economy across its citizenry avoids unrealised potential, wasted talent, and the kind of selfish behaviour that results from distorted incentives and despair in the face of unfairness. Not only are the conditions for a fair society the right thing for governments to busy themselves with, they also appear to provide for a better quality of life and the conditions for economic success.

A more equal society is healthier, wealthier - and wise.



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