By Erin Polaczuk*
2020 has been a year of massive change. The previously unthinkable has become normal, and the status quo many took for granted is revealed to be paper thin.
We face a question and a choice. Is change something that happens to us, something beyond our control to influence? Or is now the right time for New Zealand to steer a new course and pursue bold, transformative change?
Just a few short months ago, we watched governments all around the world ban rent increases and evictions - at least temporarily. We saw governments pour billions into the welfare state to protect workers suffering reduced incomes or job loss as recession began to bite. Public transport became free for essential workers in cities across New Zealand. Victoria University began offering free study to people affected by the pandemic.
We saw state intervention into the economy on a level unparalleled for decades, with the express purpose of protecting citizen access to housing, healthcare, employment, liveable incomes, public education and public transport.
For years prior, we were told this was impossible. This is clearly not the case.
No doubt everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it became possible once again to eat at a restaurant, travel around the country or drink in a pub, but in our rush to embrace things being ‘back to normal’, do we risk forgetting how much things can change? And how much they should change?
Back to normal is not good news for everyone. This country is grossly unequal, with far too many people struggling to pay for education or dental care as they travel between a low paid job and a cold, damp, expensive house.
Public Service Association members don’t want things to just go back to the way they were. We want to live in a country that commits to the wellbeing of its citizens. We want universal basic services available to all Kiwis, free at the point of use, that allow all of us to participate and prosper in our country.
We call this the Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment, a collection of services that will allow all Kiwis to live a happy and healthy life. These include healthcare, education, housing, income support, public transport and internet, and together they form an essential social infrastructure on which we all depend.
These are services that should be freely accessible to everyone and paid for through progressive taxation. The terms of our access to them should not be set by the fickle whims of the private market, but should instead be democratically determined and publicly provided. They must be designed by those who use them and those who help deliver them.
The Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment is a mechanism that will allow investment to overcome the inequalities that Māori, Pasefika and women face, and for us to take meaningful climate action.
We have some of this already. Through our taxes we invest in education, health and so on, and can access many services for free. But if you scratch the surface, you encounter hidden costs. All too often these costs end up being paid for by those who can least afford it.
Let’s take housing. If you are constantly sick because you or your family can’t afford to move out of an unhealthy house, it takes a toll not only on your health but on your education, your career, your personal development.
The next big idea, the next technological breakthrough or medical innovation, could be lost forever if it fails to emerge from the mind of a sick or hungry person. We need to build state houses on an industrial scale and make them available to those in need.
We argue public goods are no longer just physical, but also digital. It is not possible to pursue opportunities in modern society if you can’t function effectively online, and as many as 100,000 Kiwi schoolkids don’t have the internet at home. Back in lockdown, what will those kids do?
The Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment calls for fully funded public access to the internet, because a lottery of birth should not limit your options.
The PSA does not accept that providing free and universal basic services to all Kiwis carries a negative cost. The Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment is an investment, and it’s time for investments in our country go beyond just roads and bridges.
We need the social infrastructure for our communities to flourish. Let’s do even better.
*Erin Polaczuk is National Secretary of the Public Service Association.