THE PROTESTS in Wellington could well be our own Trump or Brexit moment as a country. Already we have seen many faces to this ongoing demonstration. It has swung wildly from Peace and Love to Hang ‘Em High.
Beyond the call to end Covid mandates, there is a seething tumble of messaging that suggests that much more than this is afoot. And if you can look past the incoherence, the delusions, and the toxic versions of freedom and individualism … there are things for all of us to learn and listen to here.
I see the protests is as an expression of a much wider breakdown of social cohesion that has been going on in our country for more than a generation. I do blame economic management — by both National and Labour governments — for most of this. But I also understand that there are many factors involved here including the unanticipated impact of new technologies like social media.
When seen as a breakdown of social cohesion, the Wellington protestors are not “other”. They are absolutely connected to, and are a consequence of, the choices being made by the Parliamentarians across the same forecourt that is now being defended by police officers.
The protestors are also absolutely connected to issues that existed well before Covid. They are a consequence of the choices being made in all our communities as we try to face the emergencies and unexpected changes that continue to disrupt any sense of business-as-usual.
Social cohesion is a weaving of the intangible and the unlegislated. Its bonds make up the fabric of our communities, and determine our resilience in times of change.
Social cohesion is made up of 1,001 varieties of how we get to say “We”. It includes the degree of trust that exists between us as citizens, and the regard that we hold for our major institutions. It includes our willingness to embrace diversity, to welcome strangers and to listen to strange points of view.
This cohesion gives us a shared sense of what constitutes the common good. And it also gives us a commitment to the common responsibilities we need to hold in order to keep that goodness and wellbeing thriving.
Without this cohesion, we are condemned to be living in a bitter marketplace where everyone is just on survival-mode or scrambling after their own appetites.
Without this bonding, any efforts — such as a government bringing in public health mandates that affect people’s livelihoods — are just doomed to face the sort of push-back that we are currently experiencing.
I’m not sure any of us can expect this protest “movement” — or really, this internet-connected mob — to be coherent or even kind. Our political culture can’t spend 40 years actively dis-investing in the “We”, encouraging everyone to chase their own self-interest, and then expect the losers in this bitter new world to be articulate and leaderful and appreciate the collective wisdom behind public health measures.
The Coronavirus has at times brought out the best of New Zealanders. But it has also shone an inconvenient light on many of the cracks and contradictions of our national life. This especially applies to how the virus has highlighted our rapidly-growing inequalities.
The “team of five million” has not been true for too many people for too long. This is what makes this protest our own Trump and Brexit moment. The continuing gap between the rich and comfortable, and the poor and struggling, has been a major driver of the breakdown of our social cohesion. And the polarisation it brings to our society is ripe pickings for political (and religious) opportunists and demagogues.
The great shame is that, during this Pandemic, the economic management of our Labour administration has “accidentally on purpose” made this gap in wealth inequality so much worse. Historically worse.
Earlier this month, financial journalist Bernard Hickey spoke to the Tuesday Club. He pointed to official Statistics NZ figures which show us how much inequality has exploded since the onset of Covid.
Hickey reported that Government and Reserve Bank policies have helped make owners of homes and businesses $952 billion richer since December 2019. These Covid years have actually seen what Hickey calls “the biggest transfer of wealth to asset owners from current and future renters in the history of New Zealand.”
Meanwhile, those New Zealanders who have missed out on that asset growth have been hammered with real wage deflation and rents rising faster than incomes. Hickey reports that the poorest are now $400 million more in debt and need twice as many food parcels as before Covid.
Yes, we certainly can ask the anti-mandate protestors to take responsibility for their acts of violence and menace, and their many instances of disrespect to the citizens of Wellington.
But you can’t really blame these protestors for their incoherence, or for disappearing into weird conspiracy theories, when so many of them also have to face these fundamental economic storms battering away at the cohesion of their daily lives.
vivian Hutchinson is a trustee of Community Taranaki, and the author of “How Communities Awaken” (2021)
Frances S says
Well said. What next? How do we get inequality to the top of the agenda and avoid being blindsided by the very politicians we put in place to help correct this?
Bevin Fitzsimons says
I totally agree with Vivian’s analysis and comments, especially how the lower income people in NZ are now far more worse off compared to the rich because of the huge housing price inflation. We need hugely and fast to fix this, but so far we’ve not succeeded. 3D house printing is part of such a response in many other countries. Bevin Fitzsimons 021 528 539
John Blackham says
Yes Minster should be compulsory viewing in NZ schools.
People seem to believe that our politicians have way more power than they actually have. They are captive to big vested interests, mainly overseas owned, except for the farming lobby. Bureaucrats rightly curtail most of the politicians’ wishes since it’s their job to guard the public purse, but they, though better educated than our representatives, know little about the crucial aspect of running a nation …making money. It’s what sets the difference between Singapore and Haiti.
Job one – raise the average wage to $100 per hour. When you have done this most other problems go away – living in Sweden in the 60’s demonstrated that to me. When Helen Clark tried to take this approach she was vetoed by the Farming lobby, who claimed that only farming was capable to successfully deploying investment in our future. She was further blocked by bureaucrats for whom the word ‘new’ means risk.
No other politician of any party has taken up Clark’s initiative yet it is such an easy policy to pursue. What jobs pay $100/hr now and likely to do so in the future? What do we have to do to get people into those jobs? Now execute. If we feel that New Zealanders are incapable or too dumb to fulfill a high-wage job we are on a road to nowhere. It’s not a short term fix. It’s generational, but it’s been a generation since Clark tried to get the process going. And it means a complete rethink for our education system – easy, put Vicky Buck in charge.
All we have to show for our inaction is a degraded environment, worsening social division, an economy increasingly based on welfare and being pillaged by our offshore suppliers.
Ross Milne says
Great article. Western liberal democracies are at more than one critical juncture. The ravages of neoliberalism and market economics, the inability of successive Govts to be able to find the way out, the environmental and climate concerns, changing social values, and the total lack of new thinking about how the globe functions. I think in the main there is good degree of ignorance within the political class and they have been captured by the lobbyists for the elites.
I found this in a book by Noam Chomsky about the GFC and its aftermath – ” the financial crisis was exploited as an opportunity to lock in the neoliberal reforms: spending cuts in the public sector rather than tax increases, reduced benefits and public services, cuts in health care, undermining of collective bargaining, and in general , moves to create a society with less bargaining power for labour and lower wages, more inequality and poverty, a smaller government and social safety nets, and measures to reduce growth and employment.” We are facing very interesting times as we work through all of this. We can understand why we have people who are disaffected and who want to have a voice. The continuation of class struggle. Similar conditions that led to war in the early and mid 20th century.
Ross Milne says
A couple of typos in my previous post – “moves” not “movies” and “inequality”
not “in equality”