THE WORD “EQUITY” is appearing more and more frequently in New Zealand’s political conversations. It is the new “go to” word for activists, journalists and, inevitably, politicians. It peppers political speeches, media releases, newspaper articles, television interviews and, naturally, it’s all over social media.
For many – perhaps most – people, the word ‘equity” is a synonym for the word “equality”. And, to be fair, this is very often the way politicians expect the word to be understood. But the assumption that “equity” and “equality” mean roughly the same thing could not be more wrong. The difference between these two words is as important as the difference between “reform” and “revolution”.
Most New Zealanders believe in and expect to enjoy “equality of opportunity”. They recoil from the idea of people receiving preferential treatment. Everybody is expected to line-up straight behind the start-line before the starter’s pistol sets them off and running in the great race of life. Very few people, however, expect the runners to cross the finish line at the same time. Most accept that in a contest someone comes first and someone last. A race in which everyone crosses the finish-line at exactly the same moment is not a race – it’s a jack-up.
But “jacking-up” the race (also known as “affirmative action”) is precisely what the proponents of “equity” believe in. What they are seeking is not “equality of opportunity”, but “equality of outcome”. If there are people in the race who have had the advantage of professional coaching, then those denied that advantage need to be advanced several metres ahead of the start-line. If there are runners who have enjoyed excellent nutrition all their lives, then those who have been poorly nourished since childhood must be similarly advanced along the track. If there are competitors who, on account of their ethnicity, enjoy a greater measure of confidence in their ability to win the race than those whose ethnicity has accustomed them to coming last, then those so afflicted also deserve advancement. Calculate these handicaps correctly and every runner should cross the finish-line simultaneously. Hey Presto! – Equality of Outcome!
Except, of course, that’s not the way it would go – not unless the people calculating the handicaps had guns. What sort of seasoned runners are going to accept others being positioned so far ahead of themselves? Rather than compete on such terms, many athletes would simply walk away from the contest altogether. Those awarded handicaps in the name of equity would then have to be reassessed and assigned a new handicap. How else could everybody be guaranteed to cross the line together? Not that anyone would be there to applaud them when they did. If the outcome of a contest has already been thoroughly engineered, why would anyone turn up to see it? Life is uncertain. So is sport. That’s why people watch.
The partisans of equity insist that their only goal is “fairness”: all they are seeking is a society in which everyone gets to enjoy life’s bounties; a society without “winners” and “losers”; a society in which the very idea of some people being allowed to “succeed” while others “fail” is regarded as obscene.
“Team Equity” will always get a hearing in New Zealand, where “fairness” is celebrated as the Prince of Virtues. What they will not find so easy to sell, however, is the idea that fairness requires people to be treated differently. That’s because Kiwis understand “fairness” to mean everybody being treated the same. Just watch what happens to someone who tries to jump a queue in New Zealand, or is given more than others are getting. Those responsible will be told in no uncertain terms that while everyone is entitled to a “fair go”, that does not mean they’re entitled to receive special favours from people who don’t know the meaning of the words.
This is where the propensity of New Zealanders to treat equity and equality as synonyms leaves Team Equity facing an enormous problem. In regard to Māori-Pakeha relations particularly, the argument has shifted well beyond the generally accepted notion that the indigenous people and the beneficiaries of colonisation were guaranteed, and continue to receive, equal treatment. But, “equal treatment”, in this context, can only mean that all the advantages accruing to the destroyers of Māori sovereignty must be left untouched, while the tangata whenua, stripped of their autonomy by “the imperial project”, are condemned to play a never-ending game of catch-up. Team Equity is demanding a solution considerably “fairer” than that.
What that fairer solution might look like is set out in the He Puapua Report. Its authors have come up with a twenty-year plan to give effect to what they see as the promises of equity (not equality) embodied in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Essentially, they see Māori and Non-Māori running in the same race, but on separate tracks, until such time as both sets of runners become genuinely competitive. And the handicap? Well, that will come in the form of a more “equitable” distribution of the New Zealand state’s fiscal resources, achieved by the construction of a more equitable, te Tiriti-based constitution. He Puapua is much more than a blueprint for reform, it’s a road-map to revolution.
An exciting plan, then, but the chances of selling it to Pakeha New Zealand are as slim as the chances selling the idea of some runners being advanced ahead of others on the great racetrack of life. Its only possibility of success lies in selling equity as equality – which was the great achievement of the First Labour Government. How did they do it? Not by saying they were going to advance the interests of exploited working-class New Zealanders ahead of privileged middle-class New Zealanders, but by promising to build a nation in which everybody had the same access to a job, a home, universal public healthcare, and an education system which gave every citizen the best possible start in life. How did they pay for it? By handicapping the rich through progressive taxation. What did they call it? Equality of Opportunity!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 9 September 2021.