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    Social Responsibility?
    How About Political Responsibility?

    QC - 6/3/98

    Social responsibility? What about a government that burns books? Yes the National Library is burning books. Valuables in the collection, such as a rare collection of first edition Milton, are being sold. Our accumulated national literary treasures are being destroyed.

    Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, and that veteran campaigner for putting New Zealand first [sic], have launched a campaign to let us all know that social concerns are important. By now you will have received through your letterbox the Prime Minister's social policy initiative, Towards a Code of Social & Family Responsibility, He Kaupapa Kawenga Whănau Kawenga Hapori.

    Mrs Shipley has been accused of an ill-conceived and expensive propaganda stunt. She said the public consultation exercise would cost under a million dollars. It has since been pointed out that that figure does not include the cost of receiving, analysing and collating the responses. Moreover, Ministry of Women's Affairs input was precluded because that department could not be relied upon to give input the Government wanted. Does government actually want our response, or do the politicians have their own agenda?

    This Code of Social & Family Responsibility consultation is intended to help government target social spending. Mrs Shipley has consistently denied allegations that the government intends to use this to support cuts in social spending. She replies, "There are no plans to cut benefits across the board". Note how the words "across the board" qualify Mrs Shipley's statement. That statement can mean, "Yes we plan to cut benefits, but not all benefits."

    From Mrs Shipley's comments, it appears that government did not budget for reading and collating the responses it receives. There is a real danger that National and New Zealand First will use a mock consultation process, regardless of feedback, to push through a series of prepared social policy reforms (deforms).

    Some of the Code will be issues that we all agree on and others will be highly contentious, such as forcing children to be immunised. This may be a genuinely naive view of the dangers of immunisation, or it may be motivated by the medical and pharmaceutical lobbies, or there may be more sinister intent to use these laws to mark citizens. Whatever the motivation, this proposal represents a serious attack on civil liberties.

    Rolling back the state
    In the traditional welfare state, government has an obligation to provide quality education, health, housing and support for all citizens in need. This is funded through a progressive tax system that taxes rich people more and tends to retain a relative parity between the rich and poor. That means the rich don't get obscenely wealthy and the poor have a fair chance of good health, reasonable housing and a decent education. This type of economy is usually a regulated command economy. New Zealand practised this political and economic philosophy from the 1930s until the 1980s. During this time New Zealand built up significant public assets.

    Since 1984 a free-market ideology has prevailed in New Zealand. This ideology developed through aspirations for predatory commercial expansion of the British Empire. Adam Smith enunciated de-regulated free-market principles in his 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations. Today the movement has transcended its national roots and is truly global. However, you should know that the most successful economies, the internal corporate economies, remain command economies. While large corporations may preach a free unregulated competitive market approach, internally they practise the old style command economy.

    The Code of Social and Family Responsibility emphasises individual responsibility. Notions of government responsibility are notably absent from the statements of Expectation. The statements of Expectation will move forward into any Code of Social and Family Responsibility, not the subtext or questions. Nothing in the Code suggests that we expect government to provide public health or public education systems. Nor is there any suggestion that business might be expected to act in a socially responsible manner.

    Obvious danger
    The obvious danger is that government will use a Code to set out expectations of the people, and avoid government obligations to the people. In this way the Code can be used to supplant traditional expectations of the state toward the people with a new set of expectations where responsibilities for health, welfare and education, are expressed in terms of personal obligation. This is dangerous, as it will allow government to step away from its traditional responsibilities, and privatise key social services without breaching the Code.

    Paragraph 3 on page 1 says, "We need New Zealanders and their families to help decide what responsibilities are theirs and what responsibilities the taxpayer should pick up.". This is almost offensive. It hides the government behind the taxpayer and implies that government is about to take on added responsibility. If you read carefully with our traditional background in mind, you will see that this Code is about government shedding responsibility. Moreover, "taxpayer" is a negatively loaded term, deliberately used in this context to divert attention away from government responsibility.

    In education, by emphasising personal responsibility for learning and acquiring skills, government opens the way to a voucher system whereby the individual can choose where to go and what to learn. Certain people in the National Party and ACT would prefer to privatise education. Vouchers will mean that the wealthy can use state money to go to private schools. This will lead to more private schooling and fewer state schools. State schools may be privatised when they struggle with relatively less funding.

    The same risks exist in health. By emphasising personal responsibility for health, government opens the way to introduce a health voucher system. The result would be an American style health system. The wealthy have more choice and can transfer their entitlement toward private medical insurance. The poor will rely on the remains of a depleted public health system struggling to treat difficult or chronic (read expensive) patients that private insurers decline. There is more than enough evidence to show that the American style health system is a failure. We should not want it here.

    Under this proposed Code the government could allow the health system to run down whilst hiding behind the principle that individuals are responsible for their own health.

    Why should anyone worry about what will happen to the poor computer-illiterate peasants? If you can afford a personal computer and an Internet connection then you are not one of the poor underprivileged. Not yet anyway? As New Zealand is absorbed into the global economy, you will be competing with workers all over the world. Some of us will do extraordinarily well from the Kiwi pioneering have-a-go do-it-yourself attitude, cutting edge technology and access to world markets. Most of us will see national resources sold off and our standard of living steadily eroded.

    Anyone, with a social conscience must acknowledge that the poor, unskilled and uneducated in New Zealand will suffer as a result of globalisation. We can look forward to real wages that reflect the fact that much of the world population lives like slaves, in squalor, working long hours for next to nothing. Our egalitarian way of life is under threat.

    A Political Responsibility Code
    Perhaps at this time it would be more appropriate to discuss a Code of Conduct for politicians than a Code of Social and Family Responsibility for the populace. Should politicians be expected to observe the standards expected of normal citizens?

    If any ordinary person set out a plan of action and sought support from the public, then that person would be accountable to that plan. If however, that plan is an election manifesto, then it seems that no one is accountable.

    Why shouldn't an election manifesto be enforceable? Perhaps politicians should seek a new mandate from the electorate if they are unable to fulfil their promises. What avenues should be available to challenge members of parliament when they breach their obligations? Should we use the Fair Trading Act to enforce representations and promises made by members of parliament?

    How is it that some of our political representatives make millions while in office? Are they taking backhanders and bribes? Perhaps political accounting ought to be transparent. Should there be a publicly accessible register of all political donations over $200? Should there be a public register of (competing?) interests for parliamentarians and senior public servants? Likewise, perhaps the public should know more about government consultants.

    Should the major law, accountancy, marketing and banking firms that advise government be required to declare their interests? Should we know if the people advising government to liquidate our public assets also work as agents for foreign transnationals?

    Published with permission from NZine