Family Values In Politics
By Harald Breiding-Buss
No matter how many initiatives are undertaken, reviews or witch-hunts, we never seem to rid ourselves of the damning statistics which say, no matter how good it seems, New Zealand is still a scary place for many children to grow up in.
How much does government policy impact on this, and their actions?
No matter what type of government we have, or how hot the economy is running, there are some social problems we just can’t seem to get on top of.
Compared to the mid-seventies, the last time the world economy enjoyed the kind of low unemployment rates and prolonged economic upswing that has just ended, some social indicators are seriously out of control.
There has always been an ‘element’ of people that seemed to resist any attempt to either help them or beat them into becoming more mainstream citizens. Even Karl Marx has given up on them and couldn’t see a place for them in his workers’ socialism.
In New Zealand this subculture started to reach critical mass in the late eighties when the recession hit and affected mainly the blue collar-type jobs. Our rapidly changing economy offered more choice with more information, and as a result attention spans got shorter and people started to seek instant gratifications and pleasures.
The scene was set for increasing numbers of divorces, a massive surge in teen pregnancies and growing crime rates as whole neighbourhoods sank into a lifestyle where having fun exclusively consisted of getting drunk, stoned or laid, and where the money for this came from the government and low-level crime, since getting a job was too hard: the ones that were around now either required an education.
Things took a turn for the worse when in the early nineties the government of the day literally tried to starve these people into employment.
Cut off from government support the money was now increasingly coming from burglaries, drug trade, prostitution or theft – a shadow economy that mainly existed in this subculture but spread into the fringes, and everyone started to feel less safe.
Gangs became quite a viable option for young men, as they weren’t doing anything that they weren’t used to from home anyway, but offered comradeship, purpose and a roof over the head as well. Violent crime also increased, fuelled by alcohol and drugs.
Children were being born to parents who themselves have not seen any other lifestyle in their lifetime.
Over the last nine years, many of the social statistics improved – but nowhere near as much as they should have.
Labour improved the financial situation of the working class, and the economy picked up to a level that even unqualified and casual jobs became easier to find again. Theft, burglary and other property crime went down – but violent crime remains stubbornly high.
Neither has there been any significant reduction in the teen pregnancy rate, and child abuse statistics have become abysmal. Child poverty has fallen significantly, but that is probably only a numerical effect: the government has made more money available to families, so in theory more money is available to the children – but there is no guarantee that it actually went to the children, and indications are that it didn’t.
One of the most unsettling things we see at Father & Child Trust is people (both women and men) with children from multiple partners, and often large numbers of them. This is the kind of situation where the bulk of child abuse occurs in New Zealand, not the two-parent households with a drunkard or just naturally useless father, as public campaigns seem to suggest.
The women pose a greater danger to children than men by a margin of about 2:1. This social environment is also where most of the country’s population growth happens, further fuelling some of the negative trends.
Labour’s approach of compassion has made hardly any difference to this subset of society, even during six or seven years of economic boom-time and fairly easy money, while National’s punitive approach in the nineties merely exaggerated the problem and fuelled property crime.
Unfortunately, neither party has anything to gain from tackling this problem – these people overwhelmingly don’t vote, and the voting population is more than happy to just have people who don’t behave locked up.
While the parties are vying for that vote our prison population has swelled to become (proportionally) the second-largest in the Western world, topped only by the United States.
If the last 20 years have shown anything, it is that economic policies alone are not the answer to social issues (although they often cause them). What we may have to think about is how to introduce values back into society.
‘Moral Values’ became something of a dirty expression in the heydays of the sixties, and never quite recovered from the bad image of simply standing for repressing sexuality.
When we hear it we tend to think of the whole package: God, inflexible gender roles, the lot. However, at the spur of a moment when judgment is impaired (if it has ever been there), moral values will guide our behaviour, that fuzzy feeling of right or wrong. In a situation where impulse rules, after a few drinks or heavy provocation, they are more effective than laws.
The idea of values has found its way into children’s education, although here we call it ‘virtues’. It is the idea that there are some principles that guide our lives, rather than constantly seeking the cheap thrill of the moment.
Jenny Shipley, ironically, tried to consult the populace on these issues towards the end of the last National tenure. It was probably a good idea, but the wrong vehicle and certainly the wrong time – her government had become wildly unpopular and people suspected she was simply trying to distract people from her government’s problems.
National has a base that to a large degree still believes in ‘old family values’, and this creates an opportunity to build on the good that Labour has done for poor families.
The grounds for change may also be more fertile than in the late 90s – the last Census showed that relationship breakups have now peaked and are finally receding again.
My worst nightmare, on the other hand, is that the new government will reach for the old tools of macro-economic changes, thinking that the financial incentives of lower taxes and the punishment of lower benefits will drive people into employment, and that this will miraculously fix everything else.
I hope we really have voted for a new type of government.