Are some of us more equal than others?

STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 05:00 27/01/2013
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We're all equal: But are some more equal than others?

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Our Prime Minister fought his way from state house to millionaire's mansion. We are the country of the fair go. The classless society without the old-school tie, or usually any tie at all. So why then has New Zealand seen the fastest growth in income inequality (the gap between our richest and poorest) in the OECD in the past two decades?

Auckland homelessness worker Stephen McLuckie, who lives in affluent Devonport but works with street people on Karangahape Rd, says: "We all inhabit bubbles of experience. Unusually, I get to experience a couple of different bubbles. People may think we still live in an egalitarian society. But the reality of different people's life experiences are marked."

Here's how we were, courtesy of Otago University social historian Erik Ohlssen. When the first British settlers came to New Zealand, they were neither the aristocracy nor the very poor - they came together in steerage. So they began, mostly, as equals and with a desire to keep it that way. Fellow historian Melanie Nolan says this fairness is seen by Kiwis as a "foundational culture" of our society.

Wage rates converged, because a shortage of labour meant even the unskilled were well paid. The social division between skilled and unskilled workers seemed to vanish.

There was compulsory education and universal suffrage, and comparatively better treatment for women and indigenous people than was seen elsewhere. There was no slavery, which seems self-evident, but it had yet to be eradicated worldwide.

There was huge social mobility: cross-class marriages, movement up and down the social ladder. A conscious desire by turn-of-the-century governments to improve society's structure, what Nolan calls the "social laboratory", with reforms a generation ahead of their British counterparts in reforming labour markets, political equality, arbitration courts, the introduction of pensions (the first hint of a welfare state).

Nolan says this "workers' paradise" still had gender and race division and evolving class hierarchy but it was as good as anywhere.

New Zealand, says Ohlssen, "in international terms, was a remarkably equal society. There was a smaller span between the very rich and the very poor in New Zealand than in most other societies." And there, says, Ohlssen, we stayed; "a long period where we basked in the glory of our own achievements", right up until the 1970s.

So what happened?

What happened depends on how much you blame Roger Douglas. Records show a widening chasm between the incomes of rich and poor from the early 1980s onwards. Economist Matt Nolan says the former Labour finance minister has been demonised for his economic reforms, which critics say caused that rapid split. "[But] it's overplayed: a nice-sounding narrative," says Nolan. Douglas probably played a part. But there are other possibilities: that our changing racial mix contributed - strongly egalitarian societies often have a homogenous population with a shared view of what's fair, says Ohlssen.

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Melanie Nolan mentions the regulated economy between 1935 and 1975, particularly the arbitration court which settled industrial disputes, for keeping things steady. The growth of the cities and the decline of rural life helped; cities, by their structure, were always less egalitarian. And who we went to school with may have played a surprisingly big role.

Retired Tauranga principal Peter Malcolm visits schools as a consultant. Travelling between decile two and decile 10 schools, he says, "you would think you had gone from one country to another".

A senior manager at his former school told him how kids were now mixing only within their own social class but when he was at school, he says, you couldn't tell the rich and poor kids apart, and suspects the recent rise of the uniform is an attempt to mask now-obvious divisions. Principals' Federation president Phil Harding similarly remembers that when he was a kid, everyone simply went to the same schools, prompting the sort of social mobility Ohlssen has studied: "Today, it seems to be a serious matter involving moving house."

When it comes to tertiary education, Malcolm graduated without debt, thanks to plentiful holiday work, and got a well-paid job. Now students pay fees and leave with debts, making further study much harder for the poor.

"Life is much tougher these days," he reckons, "and if you come from a wealthy family with the resources and networks, you're going to find those challenges much easier."

Harding mentions the school decile system and enrolment schemes, the debate around asking children to supply their own tablet computer, and the costs of school camps and concludes "we're more stretched out now".

"When I ask South Auckland principals to tell me their biggest challenge, it is poverty that springs to their lips first.

"What follows are then the by-products of poverty, such as domestic violence, and poor health."

So while we all get a (relatively) free education, do we all actually get an equal opportunity to succeed educationally? There are different interpretations of the word egalitarian - from the French egalite, or equality - but perhaps the most pertinent is the idea of equality of opportunity. So do we all get the same opportunities in life's most basic aspects?

HOUSING

David Zussman works at the coalface, running South Auckland's Monte Cecilia Housing Trust, finding accommodation for society's biggest strugglers. He has sensed a growing bureaucratic trend to make fewer people entitled to less governmental support. "It has got harder out there," he says. "It must be disheartening."

Zussman says the Government's recent pegging of "affordable" housing at the $500,000 mark in Auckland's Hobsonville subdivision leaves behind a huge group that neither qualifies for a state house and will never be able to afford their own home.

Home ownership, he said, "becomes a distant dream, and I don't see anybody really addressing that. A whole forgotten group are getting further and further behind".

Zussman, originally from England, has been here a while. He says when he first came to New Zealand, he idealistically believed that the solutions were in touching distance.

"Maybe now it is my cynicism, but I feel we are not scratching the surface."

THE ECONOMY

In his study The New New Zealand Tax System, former Michigan University academic - now David Shearer staffer - Rob Salmond compares New Zealand with Australia, Canada and the UK and finds New Zealand levies the lowest taxes on high-income earners and the highest taxes on low-income earners. In his conclusion, Salmond writes that some will see that as rewarding effort, taxing income less and consumption more, while others will consider it a "continued dismantling of New Zealand's once strongly egalitarian culture into an unruly schoolyard where those that have, have; and those that don't, won't".

Matt Nolan says he's perceived a trend of directing benefits towards the middle-class, not our very poorest, but believes we are still "relatively egalitarian".

HEALTHCARE

Our health system, says John Bonning, head of Waikato Hospital's emergency department, is world-class. Yes, he says, we have our problems: hospitals are the safety net for those who can't afford other care. Poor people suffer more from diseases like scabies, from diarrhoea, from respiratory problems from poor housing.

Two-thirds of us have no health insurance. And yes, the private system leeches good staff and all the easy work away from the public system. But once you get through the door . . . "We're way ahead of the US, where 50 million uninsured have almost no access," he says. "So far ahead it's not funny. It's a world-class system. And hand on heart, we're very strong on not letting you queue jump. There are no VIPs. Maybe the prime minister might get a bit of preferential treatment . . . I do feel we have an egalitarian health system."

For some, though, the question of whether we are a fair society comes right back to income levels. When Peter Malcolm read The Spirit Level, a book by British academics Richard Wilkinson and Alison Pickett that argues that income inequality is the source of most of society's ills, he was inspired. Malcolm launched the website Closing the Gap, part of a campaign spearheaded by his group Income Equality Aoteoroa and the church-based movement Closer Together. They have a petition, signed by Gareth Morgan and Bryan Gould, and held a summit of 30 like-minded groups. On their website is a video address from Wilkinson, who declares New Zealand has "ceased to be a fair-go society".

Wilkinson and Pickett argue that income inequality affects child wellbeing, mental illness, drug use, teen pregnancy, murder, bullying, rates of imprisonment, academic attainment, social mobility, women's status, even waste recycling. Live in a more equal society, they reckon, and you may live longer and less violently, and see your kids do better, take fewer drugs and not get pregnant young.

Their work has faced criticism for its methodology - Matt Nolan calls it a "terrible piece of research" - but the key fact at its heart is the trend in New Zealand since the 1970s of rising inequality: not so much the poor getting poorer, but the rich getting richer.

By that measure, income inequality is the biggest factor in egalitarianism, or its absence. And we are unfortunate world leaders on that front. But Malcolm thinks change is coming. He reports support from Labour, Green, NZ First, Mana and Maori for his move-ment's ideas.

"We are fairly sure we are getting towards a tipping point where we will have some change," he says. Change, initially, he says would see the Government create more well-paid jobs and a workforce educated enough to fill those positions.

But for now?

"Egalitarianism doesn't exist."

- Sunday Star Times

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