22 Apr 2014

Egali-what? Getting a fair go in New Zealand

10:10 am on 22 April 2014

Egali-what?” Even as New Zealand's income gaps have yawned open in recent decades, public concern about that inequality has fallen. Egalitarianism used to be one of New Zealand's touchstones, a term that conveyed a kind of pride in being a country with relatively small income gaps.

Even among the politically active, the word has little purchase now. I was in Westport recently to promote my book Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis and talk about New Zealand’s growing income gaps. I also met Georgina Lomax-Sawyers, a 16-year-old former youth MP. What did the word ‘egalitarian’ mean to her, I asked. “I know about it, I recognise the word,” she said. “But I don't associate anything with it.” Others said the same thing. And so I began to ask myself: have the values New Zealand used to pride itself on, which make up that word, vanished – or do they carry on in a new form?

Most people know that, on some level, the rich have pulled away from the poor, but here’s some figures that that show how that gap has grown over the last 30 years.

The typical person in the lowest 10 per cent of the country has seen almost no increase in their after-tax income once you adjust for inflation: it has gone from about $10,000 in the mid-1980s to $11,000 in 2011. The story for someone in the middle of the country is little better: an increase in after-tax income from $25,000 to $30,000.

In contrast, the after-tax income of someone in the top 10 per cent has doubled, from around $50,000 to $100,000. And the income of the typical person in the top 1 per cent (pre-tax, this time) has skyrocketed, from $150,000 a year to around $300,000 a year. Despite all the talk we've heard about income “trickling down”, the gains from 30 years of economic growth have gone largely to those at the top.

VIDEO: The Wireless asks people on the streets of Wellington if NZ is a fair and equal place to live.



This has come about thanks to a whole host of changes in the 1980s and 1990s. Global competition saw the loss of thousands of jobs to countries where labour was cheaper, unemployment soared, and the number of people in a union fell from 70 per cent of workers to 20 per cent. This drove down wages at the bottom, while pay for senior management rose sharply, and fortunes were made in finance and property, among other industries. Meanwhile, the top tax rate was halved, and benefits were cut by up to a quarter of their value.

For many people of my parents' generation, these facts are shocking, in the sense that they go directly against their experience of growing up in New Zealand and their beliefs about what kind of country we should be. Egalitarianism takes on different meanings in different times, but it always implies a belief that equality, of some kind, is important. And in the New Zealand of my parents’ generation, that equality used to have a lot to do with income.

The belief in egalitarianism also meant that people talked – and still talk – a lot about ‘fairness’. Like egalitarianism, ‘fairness’ can mean radically different things to different people. But in New Zealand, it traditionally meant that people acknowledged a couple of things: first, that everyone started out in life with different abilities, and second, that the way society was run made a big difference to their life chances.

To be honest, I’ve learnt about [egalitarianism] in history class, but I don’t think I would be able to give you a clear-cut definition.

This belief also shaped public attitudes towards opportunity. The classic Kiwi phrase 'a fair go' suggests that people should have an equal chance or opportunity to succeed, not that the result of those opportunities should be equal incomes per se. But the link between the two was clear.

Professor Jonathan Boston argues that the core idea of egalitarianism is that all human beings “are equal in some fundamental respect or, at the very least, should be assumed to have equal moral value or equal dignity regardless of their ethnicity, gender, age and so forth”. In the 19th century, for Pakeha working men at least, there was "a powerful sense that greater equality was a good thing, compared to the vast inequalities of wealth and rank in [for instance] Britain", says Otago University historian Erik Olssen.

These ideas about fairness, opportunity and equality were what made egalitarianism such a powerful word for previous generations of New Zealanders. In one of my talks on inequality, in Greymouth, the Labour MP Damien O'Connor came along and made a brief speech. Talking to an older audience, he used the word egalitarianism freely, as a kind of code word for the New Zealand that they had grown up in and loved; he knew that his listeners imbued the word with the same values that it held for him.

But as I travelled around the country, and asked younger people what they associated with the word ‘egalitarianism’, I didn't get much of a response; although that wasn't true everywhere because the more politically engaged knew what it meant. I asked Miriam Richdale, 23, an executive assistant and freelance writer in Wellington if the word ever came up in conversation. “Not that term egalitarianism, as such, no.” Anna Kang, 25, a junior doctor who I met in Gisborne, said: “To be honest, I’ve learnt about it in history class, but I don’t think I would be able to give you a clear-cut definition.”

The virtual disappearance of the word could be taken as evidence of a big shift in attitudes over the last 30 years. A recent book on young New Zealanders, Children of Rogernomics by Karen Nairn, senior lecturer at the University of Otago College of Education, claims that the way we now talk about society and the economy tends to make “structural constraints disappear and individuals appear to act independently". Most of the young people interviewed in the book “took up the language of free choice and self-responsibility ... if they failed, they blamed themselves for not trying hard enough”.

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Former Youth MP Georgina Lomax-Sawyers, when asked if inequality ever comes up in conversation, says, “Not really. You know there are poorer kids, but the discussion is never about, why is it like that. It’s always just accepted.” And there is evidence that an acceptance of inequality is widespread. Research carried out by Auckland academic Louise Humpage shows that people aged under 30 are, for example, are much less likely than other people to agree that the government should ensure everybody is provided for.

Beliefs influence language, and language affects reality; one of the classic international works of sociology, Habits of the Heart, argues that the political language of United States life is so individualised, that Americans simply do not have the vocabulary to express their desire for communal life with others. And with no way to talk to one another about these desires, there is no chance of founding any form of life on them. So, in New Zealand are we losing the language for talking about equality, and with it the opportunity to address inequalities? Not so, says Bronwyn Hayward, a Canterbury University political scientist whose research focuses on understanding children and young people's political views and commitments. “Young people are really recovering the language of equality, contrary to the dominant view,” she says.

And of course a new language is needed. As Labour Historian Melanie Nolan has argued, New Zealand's history of equality is “a rich amalgam of truth and myth”. Equal opportunity certainly didn't extend to Māori, who were systematically deprived of their land and resources and then excluded from many of the pro-equality measures aimed at Pakeha. Nor did it encompass women: fewer than 10 per cent of married women were in paid work in the early 1950s, for example, and even those who were in work often got paid less than men.

Concerns over these inequalities remain. “There are all these ideas around what you should be doing as a woman,” writer Miriam Richdale says. “You should be a housekeeper, you should be doing the cleaning. Generally, if I don't agree with something, I'll say so, but there is a socially accepted attitude that woman look after the kids, they maintain the house. They are perceived as not being as successful as the man who goes out and earns money.”

Inequality or poverty is never the child's fault. If we ignore children and the main issues around child poverty, we are ignoring the future and [the chance of] optimising life chances for the next generation.

Women are still paid 13 per cent less for doing the same work as men, and are subject to violence and sexual assault, "which apparently they ask for", Richdale says, with some sarcasm.

This reflects a belief that’s focused on a specific inequality between men and women, rather than the whole income distribution. Many of the younger people I met on my tour had this more clearly defined focus. A number asked about intergenerational inequality: why was it that their generation faced low wages, high debt and skyrocketing house prices, when the previous generation had encountered few of these problems?

But many others are, as Hayward suggested, articulating old concerns in a new language. Uella Watson, a Wellington hairdresser, says her main concern is educational inequality. “There should be more equality between schools, like between a low-decile school and a private school. There is such a big gap at the moment. People at a private school seem to have a good chance of going to university and getting higher paid jobs, but people at a low-decile school have much less chance of that.”

This sounds like an argument about equality of opportunity, rather than income. But when it came to solutions, she says, “Look at Finland, and the way they provide large amounts of parental leave, among other things. They have really good education results, because they’re dealing with the things that happen before children get to school, in their home life.” This is in fact an argument about incomes, but viewed through the lens of schooling and opportunity. And Watson is directly concerned about inequality of income, too, arguing that the secondary tax that many low-income earners face is unfair, and that there should be a higher top tax rate, albeit much further up the income scale.

In the era of big data, a new egalitarian language based around statistical evidence is also emerging. "I think equality is really important for society,” Anna Kang says, “because all the statistics point to better population-health with increased equality”. Greater equality meant fewer families in poverty, and fewer of the income gaps that divide a society and make it more stressful, less cohesive. A more equal society is also an investment in the future. "Inequality or poverty is never the child's fault. If we ignore children and the main issues around child poverty, we are ignoring the future and [the chance of] optimising life chances for the next generation."

In Christchurch I met Sylvia Nissen, who is doing her doctorate on the political views and commitments of young New Zealanders aged 18-24.  “What is distinctive about that group is that they have come through the entire university system post the financial crisis. And my gut instinct is that, that has had a big impact,” She says. This group will, she thinks, be more concerned about equality, and more alive to the way it can be created by social forces, than those immediately older than them. They may not express their concerns “in terms of egalitarianism or words like that”, but they now have “a very deep understanding of the nature of political and financial power, and there is an acute awareness of poverty and income gaps”.

Nissen says there’s “a distrust of hierarchies and ways of political organisation. They know what they don't like, but it doesn't mean that there is a clear alternative.” That distrust, coupled with the belief among some young people that social change is an individual or even an “entrepreneurial” responsibility, means their commitment to equality can be all but invisible to an older generation. But that risks a dangerous misreading. “It perpetuates this myth, that young people are apathetic – and young people themselves pick up on that. What's really distressing to me is the way that some students talk about themselves. They describe themselves as apathetic, they have adopted the language that the baby boomers have given them – but when you meet them, it's clear they are anything but apathetic.”

Research carried out by Auckland academic Louise Humpage shows that people aged under 30 are, for example, are much less likely than other people to agree that the government should ensure everybody is provided for.

Alex Wong, 23, of Ngati Ruamahue, is making the connection between what he sees and the bigger picture. The social-work student sees many inequalities in New Zealand, for Maori and for others. But for him, income inequality is the “first and foremost” issue. “The fact that Maori are so underprivileged, compared to most other people in New Zealand, is an economic issue, an issue of resources.”

In the last 30 years, Maori have made “massive gains” through political processes and “a tremendous amount of effort” by iwi, Wong says. But the gains have often been outweighed by the losses inflicted in the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. Wong acknowledges that pre-1980s New Zealand didn't extend egalitarianism to all. “But we were making quite a lot of social progress. If we had continued along that line, New Zealand would be an amazing place now.” Instead, the story of the last 30 years has been one of a much wider gap between the rich and the rest. For Wong, the idea of egalitarianism still conjures up images of “a country that actually gives a shit about people. It brings up images of when we had less than 1 per cent unemployment.” So it’s no surprise to him that the term ‘egalitarianism’ has fallen out of favour. “It kind of makes sense. When was the last time that New Zealand was an egalitarian country?”

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