Is neoliberalism holding New Zealand back?

Recently commentator Tracy Watkins wrote a column about the absence of big bold new policies being announced by the Government. It came after a Fiscal Budget where Treasurer Grant Robertson announced the loosening of expenditure limits, but with a clear lack of ideas as to what the more readily available finances would be used for and why.

Ms Watkins pointed that in today’s world big and bold are the key names of the policy game. The policy needs to be substantial in that fluffy, airy fairy stuff that is loaded with rhetoric but no detail is out, and bold in that new ground is broken and preferably with a vision of what might be the outcome. That does not seem to be happening readily in New Zealand politics.

As a former New Zealand First member I find this disappointing. I note that at N.Z.F.’s annual convention many great ideas would get put forward with an appropriate degree of detail released given the size and nature of the receiving audience, only for much to never see the light of day. The ideas were both internal (ones to do with party structure and governance) and external (policy that would benefit New Zealand).

Perhaps Ms Watkins was thinking also of the absence of direction in New Zealand scientific research, how it contributes to society and where it gets its funding from. Just by chance if she was, another commentator named Peter Griffin has penned a column addressing exactly that. And although Mr Griffin is correct, he is not the first person to bemoan the lack of direction or funding for science. I have written columns about it as I believe that New Zealand has still not developed the “knowledge economy” that Dr Michael Cullen talked about in 1999 or the “a brighter future” that former Prime Minister John Key had in mind for New Zealand when elected Prime Minister in 2008.

Where I think the problems lie are:

  • A war on science – an undeclared one, but ultimately one that parties on both sides of the House of Representatives are jointly waging – has been going on for over a decade, with little new funding or initiatives to encourage researchers to conduct their work here and little effort to encourage science at high schools
  • Declining academic standards – I still think that N.C.E.A. has a part in this, but in fairness the rot had probably started earlier than that and may have more to do with teacher workloads, which have taken a quantum leap in complexity since the “Tomorrow’s Schools” outlook came out in 1989
  • Neoliberalism – the trend towards free market capitalism has had only modest gains at best for New Zealand with a huge increase in socio-economic disparity between the lower and higher income quartiles in terms of quality of life, ability to afford the basics and understanding of their place in society
  • Socio-political messaging about priorities have made environment; poverty; democracy lower priority issues and have combined to create a toxic combination of health, judicial and human rights issues – which in turn have undermined the democratic foundations on which this country is supposed to be built on

New Zealand needs to wean itself off neoliberalism or at least take a really hard look at how it is impacting on New Zealand society. To me ultimately getting off this addictive “Me, me, me; Now, now, now” where short term individualized gains trump long term collective benefits is probably a bit like trying to roll over whilst the body is in a deep slumber – it will take perhaps a couple of Governments to build up enough inertia that the public mood swings against neoliberalism. However in the end the collective gain that makes New Zealanders across the board feel a part of the same society, instead of a multi-tiered one where the elite and lowest echelons are so far removed that the rest of society is being dragged down, will far outweigh any “Me, me, me; Now, now, now” capitalism.

Enabling the flow of big and bold new ideas might actually start with the biggest and probably the boldest idea of them all – changing the system.

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