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This has been us. We need to change it

Public policy analyst Jess Berentson Shaw challenges the view that the killings in Christchurch 'were not us'. Changing that will require policymakers to listen to the voices of the unheard, she argues.

On Friday morning I was inside a bubble of hope for our country. I walked behind my nine year old, her classmates, and 2000 other young people, as they powered their way down Lambton Quay demanding action on climate change from our policymakers. My emotions sit near to the surface these days. And so seeing all those kids engage in democratic action, and demand to be listened to, had me tearing up.

By the end of that day my tears were not of joy or hope. After reading the email we received from our school’s principal about the families in our community affected by the hate that was enacted on muslims by people in my country, my tears were angry and anguished.

I have heard many people say in the days since “This is not us, this is not our New Zealand”. I also heard many of my Muslim, Māori, Pacific, Iranian, Chinese friends, colleagues and acquaintances say, “This is us. We have been telling you for years.”

I utterly understand the need to reach for what is good during these times. It is important we locate the best of us and find hope in that. And what I know is that if we cannot acknowledge what is broken, we cannot use that hope to repair in ways that last.

I write and think about public policy everyday of my life. It shapes our lives in so many visible and invisible ways. Yet in shaping our policies that shape our lives, too many of our policymakers don't know how to listen to the voices of people who they have little familiarity with listening to. Just as an unexercised muscle becomes unfamiliar to us, they don't know how to use the experiences of those with the least power to make sound policy. They have become so used to ignoring the voices of all but a few. And the impacts are all around us and have been clearly articulated by experts of all kinds for decades.

People of colour, especially women, are abused, ridiculed and attacked on social media every day while doing their jobs in public, especially raising their concerns for their inclusion in power structures. Their concerns are minimised, mocked even, their safety not prioritised. While policymakers have heeded the calls of those with vested interests or of clever and cynical people who insist, that it is is “impossible” to regulate or govern for this hatred.

It is children who will live with the worst impacts of human-made climate change, yet they are excluded from the decision making, while the voices of older people who benefits from our rampant use of fossil fuels are carefully attended to by politicians.

For people of minority, ethnic and religious communities, their evidence of low grade (and often high grade) racism have been brushed aside and minimised by those making policy and allocating resources. I have no particular insight into why our intelligence services did not pick up the threat to our Muslim New Zealanders. What I do know is that our dominant cultural narratives, in the media, and in every day life, endorse racism.

Angry labels affect policymakers too

Narratives that liken immigrants to snakes, argue that people asking to be properly included are “playing identity politics”, and label those who identify the harms of racism and misogyny as “whingers”. These are narratives that do not just affect the public’s beliefs and behaviours but policymakers’ too.

In any area of policy, from transport, urban design, health I could name clear examples of policymakers attending and listening to and prioritising the needs and desires of the vocal and well resourced few.

I do have strong emotions about the promise and the failings of policy making. As someone committed to policy that improves people’s lives, I will not shy way from such feelings, or accept them as illogical. Because feelings derive from what matters most to us.

What I know is what matters most to New Zealanders is a broadminded, tolerant society that is inclusive of, and attends to the needs of all of us, not just those with louder voices and more power and resources. And we are not acting on what we care most about. The metrics that measure the wellbeing of excluded people tell us that. Friday was the worst kind of metric we could imagine. So let us own that.

The hard work of making policy in service to the public means people must grapple with the historic and contemporary power imbalances in our society. This means listening to all people with an understanding they have critical evidence to provide, not just the interests of the few. While acting, when groups with less power tell you your policies and practices are hostile to their free and just participation in society, is a central piece. It is not always simple, but using under-exercised muscles often hurts the first few times.

If people leading and making policy do not do this they become the vectors for continuing to privilege the interests of the few and all the outcomes that roll with that. The public service is full of good people with good intentions, but as John Stuart Mill said — 'Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.'

So better then to say: 'This has been us. And we don’t want this to be us.'

For those people making policy in our public institutions ask yourself what you do to make yourself uncomfortable at work to give priority to those it is easy to ignore? Because inclusion is hard and difficult work.

It is uncomfortable to challenge the status quo, but that is what comes in providing service to all New Zealanders.

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