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The politics of empathy

Islay May Aitchison speaks to David Seymour and Marama Davidson about whether there's a place for compassion in politics

In her colourful, inner-city bedroom, I’m having a conversation about politics with Isabella O’Connor. She’s 22 and socially aware, an intersectional feminist. We’re laughing as we talk. But at moments, O’Connor becomes serious. According to Unicef, 27 percent of New Zealand children live in poverty. Our homes are uninsulated and, for many, unaffordable. As the results were gradually reported on Election Day in 2017, the right-leaning National Party looked set to serve a fourth term. “I remember thinking,” O’Connor says to me now, “we’re a cruel, uncaring nation”.

For many, National’s seven-point lead came as a disappointment. After a decade that included the Global Financial Crisis and Christchurch earthquakes, the Labour Party’s Jacinda Ardern stood for a unified, compassionate New Zealand. At the time, it had felt like the whole of the nation was standing behind her. O’Connor talks about National and ACT voters with hints of betrayal and bewilderment in her voice, wonders “how the hell” so many people believed in that kind of policy. For O’Connor and thousands like her, those voters weren’t just misguided on the means but apathetic to the cause.

Recently, political alignment has seemed to carry a greater moral weight. Particularly in little New Zealand, it’s difficult to ignore that our statistics represent real people. Misfortune is only one post-code over, a friend of a friend. Tensions are rising like our income inequality. How could you tell a beneficiary that you don’t believe his payments should be raised, when he can’t afford healthy groceries or a raincoat for his son? If you could, how could you possibly still be a compassionate person?

It’s the final afternoon of her working year, but Marama Davidson, co-leader of the left-wing Green Party, has made time to meet with me. “I’m just going to be really rude and send off one last draft release,” she says as I enter her office, “and… done!” After she quickly fixes her “rain hair”, applies a coat of lipstick and poses for a couple of photos, we sit down together to talk.

I ask Davidson if fiscally conservative parties, such as National and ACT, might be driven by compassion. “We all are,” she says carefully, and then adds, “but it’s hypocritical of them to talk about compassion.”

For Davidson, compassionate governance is ensuring that all New Zealanders can live in dignity, even if that requires taxpayer investment. She believes that adequately-funded public programmes are able to operate efficiently, in such a way that truly enriches lives. Similarly, the bureaucratic expense of expansive regulation is necessary to curb corporate greed. “For example, removing letting fees for tenancies,” she offers. “Landlords say they’re just going to increase rents. That’s why we need rent controls.”

Davidson is particularly sensitive to the difficulties faced by our beneficiaries. “The Green Party is campaigning to put the heart back into our social security system,” she tells me, “that’s a key priority for us”. In addition to the elimination of sanctions, one feature of this campaign is advocating for 20 percent higher payments. As New Zealand wages have consistently risen over the past 20 years, welfare levels have remained stagnant. That can make life tough. “The majority of people receiving a benefit are doing their best,” says Davidson. “But there’s no way to get yourself onto a more sustainable pathway if every day is a struggle.”

Davidson tells me several heart-breaking stories. Parents caring for their disabled children are often unable to work but cannot access governmental assistance. A woman worked for over 20 years and was never paid a cent above the minimum wage. “There are parents out there and families out there who are at their wits’ end. They are desperate beyond measure,” she says. It seems very clear that the compassionate choice is to mandate the Government to step in and help them.

“There is no excuse, we’ve got everything here that we need for everyone to live good lives,” says Davidson. “Absolutely everyone can live in dignity. And it’s not just about a human-decency obligation – which is of course the whole point – but as a collective nation, we cannot sustain too many people struggling, too many children missing out on basics. Decent income societies are more productive.”

The Green Party’s philosophy can be distilled down to one fundamental absolute: no one should have to struggle to survive. Davidson is hopeful that, as a nation, we’re re-learning how to articulate that system. “Life happens, and anyone can find themselves needing support. We can’t think of that as dependency, but inter-dependency.”

On the other end of the parliamentary spectrum, the ACT Party is campaigning for individual freedom. Its leader, David Seymour, has been demonised in the public eye for advocating for lower taxes, reduced state spending and deregulation. If Davidson is the epitome of compassion, how should we characterise Seymour? Or, alternatively, “how could such an awful person have any compassion?”

Those are Seymour’s words, not mine; the first he says to me as we begin our discussion. I warned him in advance that I want to talk about kindness on a political scale, and he’s clearly aware that empathy isn’t considered a hallmark of his philosophy.

“What does it mean to be a compassionate person?” I ask him. “Oh,” he says, “a compassionate person is somebody who treats others the way they would like to be treated. But secondly, bears in mind that other people have different tastes.”

One of Seymour’s most notable political contributions is the implementation of charter schools in New Zealand. Charter schools, or partnership schools, are state-funded but subject to fewer regulations than traditional state schools. They’re intended to give families options. “Parents are beaten, down-and-out,” says Seymour, “and they watch other people either afford independent schools, or move to a more expensive zone. Without charter schools, they know they have no choice. Real compassion is giving people freedom.”

Charter schools have continued to be a controversial issue in New Zealand politics. For the most part, however, few people would disagree that broad personal freedom is a laudable aspiration. But for people like O’Connor, neoliberal policies come at too high a cost. While options are usually appreciated, those voters are more concerned that some New Zealanders are forced to sleep in cars.

Seymour claims the two issues aren’t unrelated. The extension of personal freedom is market freedom, deregulation in the name of “supply-side reform”. New Zealand’s poorest families are spending twice as much of their income on housing as they were 30 years ago, which Seymour claims is the result of over-regulation (such as the Resource Management Act 1991) in cities like Auckland and Wellington and a consequent shortage of supply. While Davidson advocates for further regulation to mitigate exorbitant rents, Seymour wants to empower the private sector to simply build more homes.

“Compared to 1988, what access do our most vulnerable people have to clothes, electronics and food? More – it’s not even close. That’s private markets. The problems faced by the poorest New Zealanders are due to government; either incompetence, or excess.”

I turn the conversation to welfare. Seymour has criticised Labour’s Best Start programme, a policy that gives low income families $60 a week, per child for three years. Sixty dollars might mean a few days’ worth of groceries, or a tank full of petrol for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Opposing Best Start seems mean-spirited. “Yeah,” says Seymour, “but if you give people a lot more money when they have kids, a lot of people will make different decisions and have more kids. So, do you have the average child coming into a better environment as a result of Best Start? Arguably, worse. Our attitude is: marry together changing the incentives for parents, and protecting the welfare of their children.”

The claim that $60 might influence some people’s reproductive choices is fairly dramatic. But New Zealand’s public spending (a figure that includes benefit payments, state housing, community projects and services such as free dental care for children) has increased considerably since we introduced a comprehensive welfare programme. In the last 80 years, government spending has risen from 20 percent of our GDP to 33 percent. Our GDP has approximately quadrupled, so in real terms that’s six times as much money being spent to support New Zealanders. And yet, somehow, New Zealand’s poverty is arguably worse than ever before.

To be clear, the ACT Party doesn’t want to eliminate welfare completely. Seymour isn’t that awful. He tells me about the “social insurer” role that he believes government should play. The idea is that the correct population to insure against bad parents and abusive partners is everyone in New Zealand. The private sector isn’t equipped to provide for that kind of bad luck, so it’s a “gap” that Seymour is comfortable letting the Government fill. This is also ACT’s justification for publicly-funded healthcare and education.

In addition, Seymour believes that welfare can be an appropriate “bridge” solution for those between jobs. But he doesn’t want to incentivise long-term reliance by people who might otherwise work, and he’s willing to administer some tough love. He suggests that those on JobSeekers for more than three years should be subject to an income management programme. This would mean the state electronically controls the way payments are spent. It couldn’t be further from Davidson’s fundamental belief in protecting dignity.

Seymour calls it a “trade-off”. One in 10 working-age New Zealanders are on a benefit of some kind, and he says that comes at a personal cost to recipients as their skills atrophy and their initiative wanes. He’s particularly concerned that one in five children are born into households receiving welfare, because those children statistically underperform in education and the workforce compared to their peers. It’s a cycle of poverty that Seymour believes is sustained by reforms that “leave some people in the too-hard basket.” In his book, Own Your Future, Seymour wrote, “welfare … saps the will to live and plan a meaningful life, and it is a tragedy.”

In her recent Financial Times op-ed, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proposed an “economics of kindness”. “Kindness” will always sound appealing to people like O’Connor. But fundamentally, those voters simply want to see New Zealand become a safer place and a happier place for everyone. Policy isn’t kind if it doesn’t lead to those outcomes. Truly compassionate policy is policy that works.

Where Davidson and Seymour meet is their perception of civic duty. Both acknowledge that they are extremely privileged to do the work they do and live the lives they lead. Neither shies from the challenges presented by New Zealand’s most disadvantaged people, and their solutions are described to me with a sense of urgency and genuine care. As I walk out of their offices, I feel hopeful.

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