Simple Message - Contradictory Response: In the minds of many conservative New Zealanders a battle rages between their instinctive urge to protect and defend our species’ most vulnerable members, and an equally powerful conviction that their children, as extensions of themselves, constitute a form of personal property – over whom the community and/or the state should exercise only a strictly limited authority.
WHEN IT COMES to children, the attitudes of New Zealanders are contradictory and hard to fathom. On the one hand, we respond with genuine anguish to media accounts of infants fallen victim to adult violence. On the other, we sign monster petitions demanding the right to administer corporal punishment to our own children. If asked, we will agree emphatically that “the needs of the child must always come first”. But, when welfare agencies and anti-poverty campaigners attempt to do just that, we attack them for undermining parental responsibility.
It’s as if, in the mind of every Kiwi, a battle rages between the instinctive urge to protect and defend our species’ most vulnerable members; and an equally powerful conviction that our children, as extensions of ourselves, constitute a form of personal property – over whom the community and/or the state should exercise only a strictly limited authority.
Nowhere are these contradictory impulses more clearly on display than in the current debate over whether or not our schools should provide their pupils with meals. Wrapped around this narrowly-focused proposal to “Feed the Kids” is a much wider debate about whether or not a substantial minority of New Zealand children (estimated at 270,000) are living in poverty.
Conservative New Zealanders take umbrage at the very suggestion that such a large number of their fellow citizens could be living in such conditions. They simply deny that child poverty exists. What they believe New Zealand is witnessing, in the children who arrive at school every morning hungry, unshod and ill-clothed, is evidence not of inadequate resources, but of poor parenting.
According to these conservative New Zealanders, thousands of Kiwi parents are making poor choices about their priorities. What’s more, the institutions of the welfare state, by failing to impose a more appropriate set of priorities and enforce more sensible parental choices, have ensured that the perfectly adequate resources allocated to welfare beneficiaries are both misapplied and misspent.
Underpinning this conservative view is what can only be described as an alarmingly eugenicist set of assumptions.
So many poor parental choices, the conservatives argue, is proof that a certain (and seemingly quite large) percentage of the population are simply not up to the role of parenting. The straightforward, and brutal, solution? Do not allow such people to breed – or, if they do, take away their children and place them with couples whose parental choices pass muster.
It was this sort of thinking that, in Australia, led to the “Stolen Generation”. Thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents and placed with God-fearing, upstanding, middle-class White Australians. The parental choices of the latter, it was assumed, would be far superior to those of Aboriginal Australians. The cycle of poverty and abuse which plagued indigenous communities could thus be broken, and in just a few generations the Aboriginal “problem” would disappear.
The colossal failure of imagination which the “Stolen Generation” policy represented; the singular lack of empathy which made its implementation such a shameful chapter in Australian history; similarly disfigures the analysis of New Zealand’s conservatives.
It is common to hear talkback callers and conservative commentators declare that no matter how hard family life has become and no matter how tough their financial circumstances, no parent should ever be excused for allowing their child to go to school hungry.
The mental, physical and moral disintegration afflicting individuals subjected to prolonged periods of social isolation and material deprivation is well-attested in the academic literature. The collapse of self-esteem; the recourse to alcohol and drugs as a means of deadening intense emotional distress; the increased propensity to explosive episodes of violence and self-harm: all of these symptoms – the entirely predictable consequences of poverty – are encountered by WINZ staff, police officers, social-workers, GPs, practice nurses and teachers every day of the week. They are not, however, encountered with any frequency by those who claim there is no excuse for sending a child to school hungry.
The conservatives have become intellectually immune to even the logical inconsistencies of their hard-line attitudes. They refuse to differentiate the weak and broken-spirited adults of their analysis from the innocent and suffering children. As mere extensions of the pathetic human-beings they were foolish enough to choose as their mothers and fathers, the children of poverty are clearly expected to go down with the parental ship.
The polarisation of New Zealand society into “comfortable” and “struggling” has been accompanied by a not unrelated polarisation of political convictions. Among the comfortably-off we are witnessing a wholesale rejection of the paternalism which characterised the politics of earlier conservative leaders like Gordon Coates and Keith Holyoake. In its place we find a new enthusiasm for the politics of exclusion, punishment and shame.
As if our children’s only role is to embody for posterity their parents’ blameless success or guilty failure.
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 21 May 2013.