Rod Oram: We are ambitious people

It is up to voters in the precious few weeks until the election to push political parties into ambitious action, writes Rod Oram.

The world’s in turmoil and we’re far from immune. But as we hurtle towards our September election no party seems willing to offer robust new policies to help us respond. Meanwhile, they’re distracting us with political sideshows, old policies rehashed and newer policies they’ve blocked or failed to deliver.

Maybe in the precious few weeks left we can push them into ambitious action by reminding them what’s going on in the world and the threats and opportunities that it creates for New Zealand.

For the global diagnosis, the best recent source by far is a speech last week by António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was giving the 2020 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in New York.

He speaks with insight and authority, given his political career in Portugal and abroad. It began in 1974 as a military coup ended nearly 50 years of dictatorship in Portugal. Reflecting that troubled history, his political style is to engage in discussions across all sections of society. He served 25 years in Parliament, was a member of the team that negotiated the country’s entry into the EU in 1986 and was Prime Minister 1995-2002. He was the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees 2005-15, and has been its Secretary-General since 2017.

In his Mandela Lecture last week, he said the global Covid pandemic is, like an X-ray, “revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built. It has laid bare risks we have ignored for decades: inadequate health systems; gaps in social protection; structural inequalities; environmental degradation; the climate crisis.”

He called for a “New Social Contract” that creates equal opportunities for all, and respects the rights and freedoms of all. The best way to achieve that, he said, was a “New Global Deal,” based on a fair globalisation, on the rights and dignity of every human being, on living in balance with nature, on taking account of the rights of future generations, and on success measured in human rather than economic terms.

The full speech is well worth reading. But here’s the heart of it:

“[The pandemic] is exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: The lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work; the delusion that we live in a post-racist world; the myth that we are all in the same boat.

Because while we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some of us are in super yachts while others are clinging to the floating debris.

Inequality defines our time. More than 70 percent of the world’s people are living with rising income and wealth inequality. The 26 richest people in the world hold as much wealth as half the global population.

High levels of inequality are associated with economic instability, corruption, financial crises, increased crime and poor physical and mental health.

We live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture. Everywhere, women are worse off than men, simply because they are women. Inequality and discrimination are the norm. Violence against women, including femicide, is at epidemic levels.

And globally, women are still excluded from senior positions in governments and on corporate boards. Fewer than one in 10 world leaders is a woman. Gender inequality harms everyone because it prevents us from benefiting from the intelligence and experience of all of humanity.

Globalisation and technological change have fuelled enormous gains in income and prosperity. More than a billion people have moved out of extreme poverty

But the expansion of trade and technological progress have also contributed to an unprecedented shift in income distribution. Between 1980 and 2016, the world’s richest 1 per cent captured 27 percent of the total cumulative growth in income.

Low-skilled workers face an onslaught from new technologies, automation, the offshoring of manufacturing and the demise of labour organisations. Tax concessions, tax avoidance and tax evasion remain widespread. Corporate tax rates have fallen.

This has reduced resources to invest in the very services that can reduce inequality: social protection, education, healthcare. And a new generation of inequalities goes beyond income and wealth to encompass the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in today’s world.

The digital divide reinforces social and economic divides, from literacy to healthcare, from urban to rural, from kindergarten to college. In 2019, some 87 percent of people in developed countries used the internet, compared with just 19 percent in the least developed countries. We are in danger of a two-speed world.

At the same time, by 2050, accelerating climate change will affect millions of people through malnutrition, malaria and other diseases, migration, and extreme weather events. This creates serious threats to inter-generational equality and justice. Today’s young climate protesters are on the frontlines of the fight against inequality.”

We could say ‘Well, that’s the world. We’re better off here.’

We are. But that would be dangerously complacent. Many of the ills Guterres identifies apply to us to a lesser but still challenging extent. We have inequality in health, education, skills, economic opportunity and wealth. We have racism and sexism. We have privileged and disadvantaged people. We have a climate crisis with young activists on the frontlines.

So we need to elect a coalition government that is brave enough to name those challenges, ambitious enough to devise policies to tackle them, encouraging enough to engage us all in them regardless of tribal politics, and competent enough to deliver progress on them.

As voters, we need to discuss with each other which parties will best help us respond to our Covid virus, to act on our climate crisis and to build our communities. Ultimately the third’s the most important. To succeed, we need resilient communities and collective action.

Above all, we must remember that politicians will only go as far and fast as they believe a rough majority of people will go.

So it is up to us, the voters, to prove to them we are not a complacent nation. Far from it. A wealth of vision and strategy work is underway from groups outside politics and government, as this recent column summarised with links to those initiatives.

These people and many others need to accelerate and deepen a very vigorous, ambitious public discourse right up to the election and beyond. Then hopefully we’ll get the government we need to help us fulfil New Zealand’s potential.

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