My meeting with senior Treasury officials began with the nonchalantly stated advice “In the event of an earthquake we like to get under the tables and hold on to the legs so that they don’t get away from us.”
As a Canadian, albeit one who has visited New Zealand three times in the past decade, I naively took this as a metaphor for the earth-shattering ideas the public service expects from its consultations with outside experts.
I assure you that the dozen or more participants gathered to discuss how the government might contribute to building “a more inclusive New Zealand” offered advice that was far from ground breaking.
How possibly could they?
Social inclusion is a slippery term, suitably vague to permit social policy entrepreneurs, NGOs, and academics to each weave their own threads into the tapestry of public policy.
And that’s the political appeal.
The cynics among us will surely wonder about the subtext of consultations of this sort, and the large gathering of more than 200 activists, service providers, and government bureaucrats that was held the previous day. A politician clearly whispered instructions into the ears of CEOs—as deputy ministers in the public service are called—to build up expectations that this is a government for all New Zealanders, not just those at the top, but also those on the margins, and certainly the vote-rich middle class.
Treasury officials are now making speeches implying the department is so sensitive as to know that food banks not only need food to support the homeless, but also shoes—specifically men’s size ten—as this population is continually pounding the pavement until the shelters open for the night.
What better way to frame the government’s agenda than to convince us that it is “inclusive.” Imagine how much easier it would be to swallow the TPP if everyone believes we’re all in this together?
But cynicism aside, it is a reality that we live in a more dynamic and polarizing economy. Globalization and the computer revolution mean there is no going back to the certainties of the 1980s. They also mean that the gap between winners and losers has widened.
New Zealand, like many other rich countries, faces real issues: continued flux and uncertainty in export markets, a rising debt to GDP ratio, and slow but persistent pressures associated with population aging, more diverse immigration, and continued out-migration of the young and most skilled. Like it or not, politicians will continue to ask Kiwis to be flexible, to adapt, to shoulder “short-term pains for long-term gains.”
When New Zealand began an adventure 25 or more years ago with radical policies that opened the economy to the global marketplace, it may not have been on anyone’s radar to ask: who actually bares the pain, and who captures the gain? Or perhaps concerns about inequality could easily be put aside by vague assurances that growing the economic pie is the best way for everyone to get a larger slice, that trickle-down economics would work its magic.
That naivety, and those platitudes, no longer cut it. Inequality has clearly risen, with a minority doing much better, middle groups working harder just to stand still, and those on the lowest rungs of the ladder languishing.
The rate of child poverty in New Zealand also shot up during the early 1990s, and in spite of twenty years of economic growth has not come back down. Even by rather conservative estimates one-in-eight children live in low income, and can’t participate normally in society.
Inequality in all its dimensions impedes social mobility, raising the chances that children born to poor families will become the next generation of poor, while at the same time creating entitlement among the well-to-do and reinforcing the role of place and privilege in determining the life chances of their children.
Public opinion recognizes this reality, with polls reporting that poverty and inequality are rising and salient issues. Isn’t it time to ask: Is economic growth inclusive? For whom did we make these sacrifices if not for the next generation? Did we really intend children to shoulder the pain?
If an inclusive society isn’t a society in which, at the very least, children can grow up to become all that they can be, then I don’t know what could be.
Social inclusion’s evil cousin is inequality. And a conversation about building a more inclusive New Zealand requires a conversation about the many dimensions of inequality that stunt the capacities of children.
Here’s what I told Treasury: an inclusive society is a society that seeks to eliminate child poverty. Not exactly earth-shattering, but measurable, achievable, and very likely a vote getter.