CHLOE SWARBRICK is a mystery. Whip smart and unafraid of courting controversy, she is also frustratingly conventional when it comes to solutions. Her latest cause, battling student poverty, illustrates the problem very neatly.
Very few would dispute Swarbrick’s contention that no citizen should be expected to suffer poverty – not even those who, in five to ten years’ time, will find themselves among the top 5 percent of income earners. Paying an exorbitant sum for the privilege of freezing in a leaky, moldy flat is not a “rite of passage” to be endured. It is exploitation pure and simple, and should not be permitted.
But why ring-fence these instances of exploitation with the term “student poverty”? Like the term “child poverty” it pretends that privation and exploitation can be situated in discrete categories and remediated piecemeal. As a political tactic, it is not only self-defeating, but also morally questionable. (And that is being kind!)
In what ethical universe is it acceptable to pour resources into the amelioration of “student” and “child” poverty, while those who are not students or children are permitted to slowly fade from the big poverty picture?
How could it possibly be okay to support university students with an allowance of $400 per week, while refusing to pay young unemployed individuals more than $200 per week? Why would you advocate for a rent cap on student accommodation, while doing nothing about the rack-renting of low-paid workers and their families?
Advocacy of this sort cannot help but convince those who find themselves outside the ranks of the “deserving poor” that they are socially worthless. Students need support because very soon they’ll be running the country. Today’s law students are tomorrow’s lawyers and judges. Today’s med students are tomorrow’s doctors. Today’s communications studies students are tomorrow’s prime ministers. But today’s functionally illiterate high-school drop-outs are tomorrow’s what? Drug addicts? Prostitutes? Gang members? Convicts? Who needs them?
Intended, or not, there is the unpleasant odour of class politics about Swarbrick’s attack on student poverty. Understandable, I suppose, after 40 years of neoliberalism. These days we look after our own.
Interviewed on RNZ’s “Morning Report”, Swarbrick lamented what she described as 40 years of deliberate disempowerment of university students as a force for political and social change. Although she is far too young to have any personal memories of the days when the nation’s campuses seethed with radical ideas, and student demonstrations against war and racial injustice numbered in the tens-of-thousands, Swarbrick was clearly aware how decidedly the times have changed. Particularly damaging, she suggested, was the abolition of compulsory student union membership. Its demise had fatally weakened the student movement.
“Bullshit!”, I shouted at the radio. Student unions, compulsory or voluntary, had little to do with the explosion of student radicalism in the 1970s and 80s. In fact, these student “associations” were inherently conservative institutions.
No, student radicalism arose from a heady brew of individual self-discovery, fearless teachers, and the challenging headlines of the era. It bubbled-up out of the vigorous, open-handed, social-democratic society post-war New Zealand had become. And, when neoliberalism buried that society in the late-1980s and 90s, student radicalism died with it.
Swarbrick’s demand for a top-down reinvigoration of the student movement is symbolic of a generation that has yet to experience the sheer joy of finding its own power. If she paused to reflect for a moment, Swarbrick would remember top-down is never the answer.
New Zealand’s universities are bursting at the seams with young people: scores-of-thousands of them concentrated in seven campuses – usually not that far from the heart of the cities in which they are located. What could these young people not achieve if they decided to shake off the ideological chains in which they have allowed themselves to become enmeshed? What concessions could they not extract from the Powers That Be when once they learned that what unites human-beings is infinitely more compelling than what divides them?
Perhaps Swarbrick and the Greens could begin by urging tomorrow’s lawyers, doctors and prime ministers to tackle poverty and injustice with the same selfless dedication as Christchurch’s “Student Army” tackled the aftermath of a killer earthquake.
Poverty – not “student poverty” – is the enemy. Fight it in unity. Historically-speaking, students’ power reaches its zenith, morally and politically, when they’re putting the needs of others ahead of their own.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday 22 July 2022.
Enjoyed this posting. Discrimination is discrimination, however you do it, however noble and well meaning your motives. In speaking of 'child' or 'student' or 'etc' poverty, it seems reasonable if these are specifically identified for inclusion into the topic for finding solutions for poverty in general, and acting upon them. Bring the forgotten people in from the margins.
But I rather suspect that identifying socio-economic problems for 'targeting' can have a way, I believe, of shoving the non-'targeted' into the margins. Discriminating 'for' someone seems more likely to exclude, rather than as intended, to include; is likely, however unintentionally, to discriminate 'against' someone else.
On the matter of student 'radicalism'. I reckon that was already dying long before the socio-economic and political upheavals of the late 1980s and since. I had occasion to observe the early throes in the early to mid 1970s. As a 'mature' student in the early '80s (at Vic) I recall one of my teachers commenting about the conservatism that was then characterising students in general.
Interesting timing. I heard an old protest song from long ago this morning which revived old memories. It also made me compare with today. There seems to be outrage and pushback from students, just the target has changed.
I recall it focusing on 'the man' and a better place for all. Now it appears to be about pronouns and the individual. Shutting down others opinions. The walkout of the pretentious, pretend adults at the youth parliament the other day a typical example. They are blind to how such behaviour is the opposite of how our parliamentary system works and shows they are far to immature to be given the vote.
Then again the old have always railed against the youth of the day, forgetting they used to hold that very position.
And get off my lawn.
I think we need to re-jig tertiarty training. Too many Arts degrees, not enough people studying for occupations we actually need e.g nurses.
The arts degrees graduates then become the managerial class in the public service.
On a truly shocking but related note, The latest Salient, features pages celebrating "Queerness". This includes the front "page" with pictures of young women who have double masectomies because to gender ideology and queer theory. These pictures are supposed to be celebratory (although I have to confess the print that went with them was very small. But part of a large feature/supplement celebrating Queerness.
Words do fail me sometimes. This is what young minds are being indoctrinated with. And yes Chris, I agree the universities in the 70's and 80s were places where ideas got debated and people informed themselves. And there was real diversity of opinion.
A few years back, I went to a book club event featuring various Editors of Salient. Roger Steele from the 70's talked of very real activism about things that matter.
The Editors from the 90s including Toby Manhire, talked about how Brad Pitt had visited Wellington and the Salient crew managed to get a piece of naan bread he hadn't eaten.
Because Chloe was elected in large part by university students - who were her main focus for campaigning, Middle class kids who have to spend three years with limited disposable income - and nothing at stake in their voting decision. Her only life experience was at university The Greens are a middle class and beneficiary party. it finds the working class 'unlikably 'gauche' - ironic for a party that promotes itself as being on 'the Left'
It just makes one want to cry for the inept and callous situation of NZ. A majority Labour government are over halfway through their second term at the helm and we have more entrenched poverty than before. After the PM declared herself the minister for child poverty. Politicising poverty with the ring-fencing term and then doing nothing meaningful.
Tears and pitchforks.
Thanks again Chris, we need you more than ever.
Swarbrick is in campaign mode - her demands for more student money is all about Auckland central votes.
In regard to students there are far too many university students accruing a big debt obtaining - in probably 50% of cases - a completely useless university degree. Many of those students have very limited literacy skills .
Many of those students should be in trade training.
I used to work for a company that offered shares to all emplyees. The company was eventually sold overseas and the employees who emerged with the most money were tradesmen. They trained as welders and designers and mechanical workshop skills etc and had worked up to senior positions in the company.
As a student in the early 70s I remember well the large and vigorous protests against the Vietnam War and Apartheid in which many of us took part. Of course in those days the purpose of a university education was not so narrowly tied to getting a job, and we only had "finals" to worry about at the end of the year. As for "poverty" there were certainly no luxuries and accommodation was basic, often substandard, but we regarded it as a temporary phase to be endured. Fees were modest, student loans were unknown and most of us financed our study through summer jobs and perhaps a scholarship or bursary which in those days were still worth something. I could not have attended university without my National Junior Scholarship. University education has since become debased. I think a lifting of standards and reduction in numbers is long overdue. We should also look at increasing merit-based support such as scholarships.
On second thoughts she may well have been appealing to student green patry members to vote for her in the green party co-leader vote.
They really hate men does the grren party.
Swarbrick is simply making a cynical pitch for the student vote, which will be greatly enhanced when Jacinda delivers the right to vote to sixteen year olds in time to elect a Far Left Labour-Greens regime in 2023.
Quote: "Student unions, compulsory or voluntary, had little to do with the explosion of student radicalism in the 1970s and 80s. In fact, these student “associations” were inherently conservative institutions.".
Add "The Sixties" ... to the 70's 80's cohorts.
Our student "sixties mean streets" consisted of a two-room renter in Kari St Grafton. Not a peep of concern then from STUDASS as to our poverty plight/trap.
The Vietnam war was front of mind. Keen to join the air force I resiled from marching.
The RNZAF Maritime Wing was consciously my choice (Vietnam was exclusively a "land war")... this ploy was part of my passive reluctance ... to have anything! to do with this bloody obscene American war.
So my point! .. is:
Back in the day there were monumental issues abroad to be concerned about.
Our student endemic "poverty" was ... the least of em
The trouble Chris is far too many students either fail to complete degrees often due to $issues or those who do compleye will fail to get jobs in that 5% of earners. We have too many students doing 3 year sub standard degrees. The substandard is variously content and expectations or student engagement and quality. They are living in substandard housing paying exorbitant rents and facing, for many, crippling loan repayments as part of the precariat. Yes poverty is the wider societal issue but we know this is a structural issue that has too few advocates to ensure meaningful change. Swarbrick is at least advocating for her political base. These are not student radicals but the next generation of New Left progressive neoliberals.
"Poverty – not “student poverty” – is the enemy."
Would be fun to watch you replace 'student' with 'Maori 'in that article and survive cancel culture. Anyone who promoted that assistance should be provided on need and not 'Maori-ness' has been roundly accused of racism - good luck with that.
Politics 101 - find a 'community' you can appear to support as that means votes and votes mean Parliament. Cynical perhaps, but I understand Chloe got a lot of student votes last time around. For me, one of the major failures of modern politics is the increasing fracturing of us in place of promoting humanity as a group and emphasising our commonality. This commonality, I remember from my childhood as a key argument against racist attitudes embodied by the great big melting pot metaphor, we so often heard then but no more.
Somehow, advocating tolerance of the differences between us has morphed into ideology warfare with victims and aggressors. Decades of pushing the message that minority groups are mistreated, suffer prejudice and need to be specially treated leads to smaller and smaller communities of strife turbo boosted by intersectionality once some realised the minority arms race had led to so many winners nobody actually was. Helps that we attributed fault to you, the common 'man'.
I agree with your main point by the way on about the problem of special groups though I suspect your faith in the power of student politics is coloured by your own experience, as historically, they represent the movements of the time in an exaggerated fashion IMO rather than drive them. We live in a conformative time embodied by cancel culture rather than an individualistic time, cue punk as a great example.
Daddy an international banker who worked for the International Finance Corporation, I believe.
"Swarbrick’s demand for a top-down reinvigoration of the student movement is symbolic of a generation that has yet to experience the sheer joy of finding its own power" Exactly. She's got no idea. .
The comments of Ms Swarbrick are indicative of someone who no longer believes in the dignity of the individual, but instead can only view someone through the lens of group identity.
The downside of reframing of human beings into a chosen collective is not limited to excluding those in poverty who are not part of the 'favoured group' but rather to all New Zealanders who find themselves outside of a favoured group status regardless of the issue at hand.
In short, such politics are dehumanising. Individuals have no dignity or status in their own right, only when the belong to a favoured group.
We have seen this before, albeit in a different context. The 20th century is replete with individuals who were labeled with a group identity, be they Jews or Kulaks, who were ruthlessly scapegoated and persecuted. This is perhaps the more ugly side of Group Identity politics. They are opposite sides of the same coin.
It's good to see some push back Chris, but my sense is that identity politics is part of the Left's DNA, and one of their least attractive attributes.
Much of this is just about being clever and fashionable. People have short memories but the nature of NZ universities and the people who went to them changed radically between say 1965 and 1977. In the late 1960s and early 1970s numbers increased greatly and women in say Law went from a handful to equal numbers in Law 101 by 1975-77.
Hippie culture and the love generation was generally popular in youth culture in NZ in 1966- 1970 but remained predominant in the university culture until 1975 the year Whilams government was thrown out, Muldoon seized power and the North Vietnamese took Saigon. It was a year after Watergate and Nixon's forced resignation. Up until that point only those with the National Junior Scholarship essentially the top 1 percent got significant financial assistance, beyond the generally free 1970s fees. Other than those who were trainee teachers or Army territorials who were studying dentistry both large groups were effectively paid.
However the Student Tertiary Bursary introduced by Muldoon in 1976, Rob simply carried over Labours over generous scheme, which effectively paid students for 30 weeks a year for 3 years for an undergraduate degree and a years postgraduate study at the time, if you passed and had entered university after a 7th form year and been awarded HSC for attending.UE itself was awarded for a total of 200 marks in 4 subjects in the 6t, so h form or 4/40 percent D passes in Bursary subjects in the 7th form Schools could accredit students they thought worthy of university study in the sixth form on internal results, modulated by the school students actual performance in the external UE and Bursary.
The Standard Tertiary Bursary made university much more attractive and possible for many and further increased numbers, but it also reduced the incentive for people to start work after leaving school, given the minimum wage in 1975 was about 62 dollars and a bank or insurance clerk got no more than 70 dollars a week.
Muldoon greatly reduced well paid options for students in the public service with his sinking lid policy and from1980 most good NZ graduates saw the future as overseas employment.
The introduction of student loans in the 1980s and 90s did not change the nature of the university much
During the reign of Helen Clark everything changed with much more internal assessment, group work and PC requirements. Degrees had become a right of passage and a middle class essential , so course content and material changed so any girl or upwardly mobile Maori could get a good NZ degree. The essential requirements were lowered to that of a civil servant typist in 1966. Fluency, grammar, spelling and citations.
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