TV & Radio
There was a time when TV One seemed the natural home for measured, thoughtful documentaries such as this, the latest offering from Bryan Bruce, the man behind 2011's eye-opening Inside Child Poverty doco. But market forces have ravaged what was once our flagship state broadcaster, leaving it almost braindead, a fact that might raise a smile from Bruce, who examines the effects of an unrestrained free market in this fine doco and two others that will follow on TV3 in due course.
Standing in front of The Beehive in the opening minutes, Bruce poses two simple questions: why is the gap between rich and poor growing faster in New Zealand than most developed countries? And why is that bad for all of us?
The next hour is spent searching for answers, with input from a wide range of interested parties: a young unemployed mother reduced to sleeping with her three children in a tent in a relative's back yard; a couple who work full-time yet can barely cover their rent; a Nobel Prize-winning economist; an Indian entrepreneur who has set up a bank funding sustainable self-employment initiatives for the poor.
Bruce supplies historical context for New Zealand's steady slide from the broadly egalitarian society of the 60s and 70s to a highly competitive nation generating obscene wealth for a small elite; a place where a substantial proportion of the taxes gleaned from the now-struggling middle classes flows down to pay welfare subsidies that disguise the grim conditions endured by the nation's poor, while most of the profit generated from rents and the sale of consumer goods is kicked upstairs to the wealthiest 10 percent of our society, most of whom pay less tax than ever.
Blame is laid squarely at the feet of the neo-liberal economic reforms spearheaded by Roger Douglas back in 1984, and Bruce argues that even superficially compassionate modern-day social initiatives such as the Accomodation Supplements merely transfer state wealth to landlords, while the Working For Families top-up subsidises employers who pay appallingly low wages.
He finds no shortage of heavyweight financial experts who share his views. In one interview, an Australian economist dismisses asset sales, privatisation, radical market deregulation and the mythical ‘trickle down effect' as "zombie economics"; just a marauding mob of rotten, extremely whiffy old ideas that refuse to die, spawned within unenlightened parliaments and boardrooms then set free to roam the land, spreading misery wherever they go.
Mention is made of influential 2009 book The Spirit Level, which showed that drug abuse, poor mental and physical health, crime, obesity, violence and teenage pregnancies all increased in direct proportion to the inequity of any given society, suggesting the rich have as much to gain from a more equitable society as the poor.
Just before the closing credits roll, Bruce is back in front of The Beehive, casting dark glances towards the debating chamber. "If we want good food and warm shelter for everyone, a better life for our children and a longer, happier life for ourselves, we're going to have to do something about narrowing the gap between rich and poor. We need to legislate for fairness and equality, so that we can put some morality back into the marketplace."
Mind The Gap, Thursday Aug 29, 7.30 pm, TV3
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