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.