Preserving The Gap: To placate a “base” already alarmed by their party’s Maori-friendly rhetoric, the National-led Government made it clear that it had no intention of matching its Maori-friendly words with Maori-friendly deeds. Not where it counted, anyway.
WHY WON’T John Key’s National Government commit to reducing child poverty by 10 percent? What is it that prevents the Prime Minister from accepting Children’s Commissioner Beecroft’s challenge? It’s puzzling.
As Leader of the Opposition, Key identified the growing “underclass” as one of New Zealand’s most pressing challenges. His highly publicised foray into McGeehan Close, one of the poorest streets in Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Mt Albert electorate, reinforced his message powerfully. Poverty was something National’s leader took very seriously.
Was it all yet another example of “just one of those things you say in opposition, and then forget about in government”? Only partly. If Key was to unseat Helen Clark’s government he had to convince tens-of-thousands of wavering Labour voters that it was “safe” to switch their allegiance to National.
Under Key’s predecessor, Don Brash, these voters were far from convinced. National in 2005 came across as too extreme; too ready to divide the country along the fault lines of class, gender and race. Key’s job (and he did it brilliantly) was to convince the electorate that National had learned the lessons of 2005. That it was now quite safe to change horses. The voters’ new mount was not about to carry them over a cliff.
Why, then, having won the 2008 General Election, did Key not use the powers of government to rectify the social conditions he had condemned so eloquently in Opposition? The answer, sadly, is because any serious attempt to address poverty and homelessness in New Zealand immediately inflames the inherent racial bias of the Pakeha electorate.
Remember Helen Clark’s first term policy of “closing the gaps” between Maori and Pakeha? Remember what happened to it?
National’s politicians understood how easily racist resentment against such policies might be inflamed. They were not about to risk a flanking attack by the Iwi/Kiwi die-hards of 2005. Key’s outreach to the Maori Party was already raising hackles on National’s right. He was not about to raise even more by unleashing a Kiwi version of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”.
Quite the reverse, in fact. To placate a “base” already alarmed by their party’s Maori-friendly rhetoric, the National-led Government made it clear that it had no intention of matching its Maori-friendly words with Maori-friendly deeds. Not where it counted, anyway.
Geography is always the most inflammatory factor in social conflict. The proximity of poverty produces a toxic cocktail of responses within neighbouring communities. Considerations of property values, school zoning and crime rates not only generate policies aimed at excluding the poor, but also at keeping them bottled-up. Such discriminatory impulses are much easier to maintain and justify when poverty and ethnicity combine to form a single social threat.
The National Party has always understood this. It’s why it confined its state house construction within clearly-defined geographical, socio-economic and racial zones. It also explains the party’s unwillingness to allow the situation of those living inside these impoverished communities to improve at anything like the same rate as those living outside them. Far from closing the gaps, National’s priority has always been to keep them open.
The prospects for the poor in New Zealand took a significant turn for the worse when the terms “working-class”, “Maori” and “Pasifica” became more-or-less synonymous. At that point, the well-to-do’s age-old prejudices against the poor combined with the vicious racial stereotypes of New Zealand’s colonial heritage. The condition of the impoverished could now be explained-away by referencing their “poor choices” and the “dysfunctional cultures of violence” in which they were raised.
In the words of the urban historian, Dr Chris Harris:
“The unrelenting exclusion practiced by Pakeha society against Maori/Islander populations stands in marked contrast to the way that the state bent over backward to find people jobs and houses when the neck that wore the blue collar was white, back in the 1960s. In those days policy was all about capitalising the Family Benefit for a deposit on a house; these days it’s ‘How can we stop those people causing poverty by breeding?’ A complete double standard: ‘natalism’ for Pakeha families with 4 kids in the 1960s; Malthusianism for brown families with 4 kids in the 2010s.”
Combine that racist double standard with the electorally consolidating effects of soaring property prices, and the National Party’s indifference to child poverty makes a terrible kind of sense.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 October 2016.