Monday, 4 February 2013

Sting In The Tail

Road To Ruin: If New Zealand is to remain a successful modern nation it must make the elimination of the "Tail" - the failing 15-20 percent of its people - the nation's No. 1 priority.

IT’S THAT PERSISTENT fifteen to twenty percent of the population which stubbornly refuses to disappear from all the wrong kinds of statistical data. Without the drag of its sorry performance New Zealand’s achievements would rival those of the most successful Scandinavian societies. Without the need to provide for its sustenance and support we’d be looking at budget surpluses – not deficits. And without the need to contain its propensity for crime and violence, the state could be funding much more positive and creative endeavours. It’s why, in any discussion of New Zealand’s future, one cannot avoid mentioning the “Tail” – because its sting is poisoning us all.
Getting rid of the Tail should be New Zealand’s No. 1 priority. The energy and imagination of our finest scholars – augmented by the unwavering support of our political class – should be applied unstintingly to its elimination. So much depends upon it.
As the nation ages, the mostly young constituents of the Tail will be called upon to take up the slack of its maintenance. Sullen, envious and hostile; as unmotivated as it is poorly educated; the Tail is simply not equal to that task. But if we cannot find a way to make it so. If we cannot conduct the Tail from the margins to the centre of our national life, then New Zealand as a successful modern nation is finished.
The task would be easier if the Tail was entirely white – but it is not. Overwhelmingly, the ethnic composition of the Tail is Maori and Pasifika. It is comprised of the children and grandchildren of those we hauled into our major cities to do the jobs we no longer wanted. From the farthest reaches of rural New Zealand and the most distant islands of Polynesia we marched these migrants into our factories and warehouses, set them to work on our roads and railways, asked them to clean our schools, hospitals, shops and offices. And then, when the economic game changed and their labour was no longer needed, we simply tossed them away. Pacified with welfare benefits, stupefied by alcohol and drugs, we simply cut them loose from “mainstream” New Zealand society. Instantly, they became the “Other”; the “Enemy”; the “Undeserving Poor”. And their children became the “Tail”.
And nobody, it seems, wants anything to do with them – except the promoters of the so-called “Partnership Schools”, who are quietly confident that, alongside the liquor retailers, the loan sharks, the pubs with the pokies and the private prisons, they, too, have found a way to turn the Tail into a paying proposition.
Certainly our politicians regard the Tail as a phenomenon of limited utility. Because so few of them vote their principal political function is to hone the resentments and bolster the self-esteem of the working poor.
Listen to Labour’s David Shearer as he reads his autocue to last weekend’s Young Labour Summer School. (Yes, he even needs an autocue for that!)
“[T]his Government has forgotten the hard-working and inspiring people I come across every day. In a pub in Napier, a guy came up and said to me ‘I’m working harder than ever, I pay my taxes, we’re trying to bring up our kids the best we can, but we simply can’t seem to get ahead’ … They’re not asking for an easy ride or a hand-out … They’re doing their fair share. Playing their part.”
He might just as well have added: “Not like those bludgers on the dole, DPB or sickness benefit!”
A Michael Joseph Savage or a Norman Kirk would have used all his persuasive powers to convince his audience that nothing is worth having if getting it means denying it to others. He would have warned them that either we enter the promised land together, or we do not enter it at all.
What hope have we of ridding ourselves of its malign influence – or protecting ourselves from its sting – if even the Labour Party has nothing to offer the Tail?
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 February 2013. 


KN said...

"The task would be easier if the Tail was entirely white"

How would it be easier? In some ways the grievance industry around the Treaty is a blessing here as it can be used to bring the focus onto that tail - whereas if they were predominantly white they would be dealt with by being ignored (how does Australia deal with this perhaps? surely they have a tail as well? America certainly does)

schultzie said...

"The task would be easier if the Tail was entirely white"

Would it? Or would they be even more ignored because they don't have a treaty to point to?

Chris Trotter said...

To: KN and Schultzie

The most successful welfare states tend to be those with homogeneous populations.

Sweden's concept of the "hemstat" - or "home state" - rested on the idea that all Swedes were members of the same national "family".

The moment cultural and/or ethnic differences emerge the family metaphor begins to break down and the support for the "home state" evaporates.

Sadly - outrageously! - if the poor were all Pakeha then, according to the best international research evidence, the willingness to do something about their plight would be considerably greater.

Anonymous said...

"Grievance industry" again - That's the dark underbelly of white NZ. Racism by another name.

RMJ1 said...

Well, it would be worse if thousands were not here on the big island to the East. Two Maori garbos on the job in my street last week,in inner city Glebe and at the Kings Head Hotel at Hurstville last week another Wanganui working and demolition with his mate. And all making a decent living that cannot make an God's own. The one problem that the not so clever NZ government hasn't grasped yet there is the majority I would suggest of these expatriates are going to return,as a matter of necessity, because when they reach retirement age they cannot access an Australian pension, or disability or inability to work lives and helpless. Any Kiwi who arrived after 1992 and has suffered at the hands of the Queensland floods is similarly on their own. And what makes it more distasteful still is the Key government was recently pressing for the Australian taxpayer to come to the party with entitlements for "our people". Oh, do not think for a minute the profile of New Zealanders in Australia is mostly Maori or Polynesian .Quite the contrary.

Anonymous said...

In the early 1980s New Zealand politicians learnt you can ignore the needs of the bottom 20% of the population and still be elected as government.

Later in the same decade they discovered they can actively demonise the same 20% and win even more votes.

And thats exactly what National and Labour have done ever since.

James McGehan said...

The migrants I knew may have come to work as cleaners and labourers but they had dreams for their children which should have seen them as managers and qualified tradesmen. Those migrants understood perfectly well that education was the key to their childrens' success.
So what happened?
My taxes funded schools and teachers.
Their job was to encourage their children to learn at those schools.
What happened ?
When did they lose their dream?
Any teacher will tell you that a family background that wants learning will give children most of what they need. Not money.Desire.
Chris, no matter how right we think we are we are welcome pushing into other folks' homes and telling them what to do.
This is the 21st century and we need to sell them on our ideas and solutions.
Meantime, the National Party will have plenty of unskilled work for men building roads.

Smith said...

“[T]his Government has forgotten the hard-working and inspiring people I come across every day. In a pub in Napier, a guy came up and said to me ‘I’m working harder than ever, I pay my taxes, we’re trying to bring up our kids the best we can, but we simply can’t seem to get ahead’ … They’re not asking for an easy ride or a hand-out … They’re doing their fair share. Playing their part.”

This is it in a nutshell. Labour will never get ahead by trying to play National's game.

Cactus Kate said...

Yet Chinese children come to NZ, their parents with next to nothing, all speaking broken English and the kids go on to clean up school awards by the time they are 17.

One generation is all it takes and the Chinese seem superior at making that leap as they take responsibility for their immediate family without relying on others.

No Treaty, no troughing, no moaning at teachers. Just hard work and attitude.

How many stay in the tail?

Michael Wood said...

Thanks Chris. The digs at a Labour Party that is quantifiably offering more on economic inequality than any mainstream party in 30 years aside, this is a good post!

I think that one of the key tasks is simply the reinstatement of the public belief that inequality and poverty can be meaningfully addressed through the political process. I am currently reading a pen portrait of LBJ "Indominatable Will" which points out that the Great Society porigramme of reforms reduced measurable poverty from 20% to 12% of the populace within 5 short years. It can be done.

jh said...

Maori and Pacifica have large families; large families tend to be poorer.

Grant Hay said...

@Michael. If five years of effort and a determined programme of social reform is all it takes to create major change, how come we're still in this situation after 15 yrs of Labour Govt since 1984? And quite a few of those years the 5th Labour Govt were lucky enough to have the best economic tail wind since the early 70's. If their glacially slow and cautious reforms continue on the same track for the next thirty years as they did in the last three decades, I'm certainly not going to see an improvement in my lifetime.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Michael, I think you should substantiate that claim with some concrete examples.

If your claim is based on the 2011 manifesto, then you and I share a measure of agreement. I am, however, much more dubious about the current policy direction of the Labour Party. The reactionary sub-text of Shearer's speeches is of most concern. It leads me to conclude that the progressive achievements of the Policy Council since 2006 are about to be wiped out in an attempt to pander to the prejudices (and thus reclaim the votes) of "Waitakere" men & women.

The blatant lying and emotional brutality which the Labour caucus engaged in following the 2012 Annual Conference is now, I fear, beginning to taint the entire party.

It's happened before, of course, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, however, Labour still had Helen Clark and Jim Anderton who, between them, rescued the party from its neoliberal apostates.

In spite of all the accusations hurled at him, David Cunliffe is no Jim Anderton, no Helen Clark.

He has neither set up an openly dissident organisation within his own party - as Anderton did - nor has he the intricate web of allies and facilitators that Helen had so patiently spun and which in 1993 lifted her into the leadership.

Sadly, Helen's mastery of the party and Jim's ego tended towards a weakening - not a strengthening - of the social-democratic Left. Our current predicament is the result of too much power at the top, not too little.

The play must go on, however, and can only proceed with the characters actually present on the stage. Sadly, Michael, I can't help noticing that in this production of "Building A Better New Zealand" the villains now vastly outnumber the heroes.

MPledger said...

I had a look at some stats on Pacific People which show that there is advancement in income, education and job type (on average) as the length of time a family has been here i.e. the children do better than the parents and so on.

I think the Pacific families will be able to hoist themselves up in the next generation or two especially as they live in the main urban areas and have more access to resources especially tertiary education.

The real problem is the lack of resources for the tail in small centres. They just don't have the same access to education, jobs and professional networks but aren't able to leave for a myriad of reasons.

The Flying Tortoise said...

A great post Chris. Thankyou.

Michael Wood said...

Grant - the reforms of the 5th Labour government were indeed pretty moderate and cautious, in line with the mandate that government was elected on. Nonetheless the gains in terms of numbers lifted out of poverty were real. The proportion of people living in absolute and relative poverty reduced significantly, and inequality as measured by the Gini co-efficient also reduced. I undertand where you are coming from though and I think it is fair to say that most within the Party today favour bolder, more structural measures so that we can make more significant progress in the next term.

Chris - Yes, the claim is based on the 2011 manifesto, and formal policy work done since then. You've seen the draft binding Platform and none of it "takes us back".

Despite what people might try to divine from various speeches and media snippets none of the major progressive aspects of 2006-11 policy period have been overturned and I sense no will at any level of the Party with an involvement in policy (activist, elected official, MP, leadership) to somehow pander to a reactionary element. Of course I can't prove that to you until we have a 2014 manifesto, but I'm happy to bet you another beer that it will be a document that contains measures as strong or stronger than the 2011 iteration to reduce the economic inequality that so blights our society.

Steve Kerikeri said...

Very thoughtful, and persuasive Chris. Thanks. Puts paid to the facile line that the poor are a burdensome affront to right thinking folks, worthy of contempt and abuse for the sin of being so.

Steve Kerikeri

Grant Hay said...

@Michael. Thanks for your reply. But how many people during the 5th Labour Govt. were actually permanently lifted out of poverty due to govt policy or direct intervention or govt agencies? Or was it a simple case of the govt getting lucky because the world economy experienced a temporary (and as we now see phantasmagorical) upturn which soaked up a fair swag of the unemployed into jobs that were often as ephemoral as the financial and economic conditions that created them. Four years later, here we are back at square one. So after nine years in government Labour created almost nothing permanent for the bottom quartile of the nation and a fair swag of the rest of us are also at risk. Many of us were unimpressed at the time and are even less so now.