By Chris Trotter*
Who will make the New Zealand of the next 50 years? We had better hope that, whoever they are, they make a better job of it than those responsible the last 50 years.
The condition of the country in 2022 offers a stark contrast to the New Zealand of 1972. The country of 50 years ago offered young New Zealanders world-class education and healthcare, full employment, an affordable home of their own, and a future secure enough to contemplate starting a family without trepidation.
The country has been riding on the back of that much stronger New Zealand right up until the present day. As my friend Chris Harris pointed out to me just a few weeks ago, the modern and highly efficient infrastructure of 1965 served a New Zealand population of 2.5 million. In the space of less than 60 years, our population doubled. Harris’s jarring question: Is the infrastructure required to service a population of 5 million in place? Do we have twice the number of hospitals? Twice the number of schools? Have we made sure that the New Zealand of 2022 still possesses the same high-quality scientific, engineering, medical, teaching, commercial and skilled-trades expertise as the New Zealand of 1972?
The answer to that question is the stuff of contemporary headlines. The construction of the physical and human infrastructure necessary for the maintenance of a strong, first-world economy and society has not kept pace with New Zealand’s burgeoning population. On the contrary, it has languished far behind. Not only have we mended and made-do, but we have also relied upon a qualified workforce that is growing older, but not larger, to keep the social and economic engine ticking over. These experts are rapidly running out of puff. But, when they look over their shoulders, what do they see? Too few replacements, and too far away.
The explanation for New Zealand’s crumbling infrastructure is, almost entirely, bound up with politics. The right-wing populism of Rob Muldoon was effective but expensive. His cancellation of Norman Kirk’s contributory superannuation scheme, which could easily have funded our required infrastructure investments, left him politically marooned and fiscally vulnerable. His increasingly idiosyncratic style of economic management also set up the conditions for the economic and social revolution unleashed by the Fourth Labour Government in 1984.
The neoliberal ideology which drove that revolution (and swiftly captured the National Party) was a reaction to, and an implacable foe of, the active state that produced the prosperous New Zealand of the 1960s and 70s. The “hands-on” style of nation-building which had been a feature of both Labour and National governments since 1935, was unceremoniously dumped. If infrastructure was in genuine need of refurbishment and/or replacement, then the Market would step in to reap the profits.
Except that capitalism has always relied upon the state to construct and preserve the physical and social infrastructure necessary for the realisation of private profit. If the behaviour of sovereign states since the global financial crisis of 2008-09, and during the current Covid-19 Pandemic, has not made that clear then it is difficult to imagine what could! Free movement of capital. Free movement of goods. Free movement of labour. Such is the neoliberal catechism – and New Zealand has been an apt pupil.
It was the free movement of labour that hurt New Zealand the most. By forcing tertiary students to take out loans to pay for their tuition, neoliberal education policy more-or-less forced the country’s best and brightest to join the “Anywhere” class of globalised professionals and managers. By destroying organised labour, neoliberal workplace relations drove New Zealand’s best workers across the Tasman to Australia where wages were 30 percent higher.
It was a deadly cocktail. In order to secure and retain some form of democratic mandate, successive neoliberal governments were obliged to offer tax cuts to their most reliable voters. This hollowing-out of the state’s fiscal position meant key infrastructure was either overburdened with demands it could no longer safely fulfil, or simply shut down. To this ailing physical infrastructure was added a human infrastructure no longer equal to the nation’s needs. The only way to keep the state even semi-functional, was by opening New Zealand’s borders to tens-of-thousands of immigrant workers.
When traffic is reduced to a crawl, and broken water pipes send geysers soaring into the air, the neglect of the past 50 years can no longer be ignored. When crippling shortages of medical specialists and nurses render our hospitals unsafe, and there are no longer sufficient qualified teachers to adequately staff our schools, polytechnics and universities, then the crippling infrastructure deficit simply has to be addressed. The critical question confronting New Zealand, however, is: can these deficiencies be made good?
It is not just a question of finding the huge amounts of capital need to repair, replace and augment the nation’s physical infrastructure – it’s the strings that are attached. At the heart of the Three Waters controversy, for example, isn’t the fraught issue of “co-governance”, it’s the non-negotiable requirement of international lenders that the administrative entities needed to oversee the spending of the billions of dollars needed to bring our drinking-, storm-, and waste-water up to scratch are hermetically sealed-off from democratic interference.
Of even more concern is the decay of New Zealand’s human capital. Young New Zealanders of 2022 are simply not as literate, nor as numerate, as they were 50 years ago. Google, Wikipedia and YouTube notwithstanding, their general knowledge is abysmal. This is far from being a trivial objection. A good general knowledge is essential if young people are not to fall prey to misinformation, disinformation and wild conspiracy theories that infest social media. It is what they don’t know they don’t know that leads so many people down the rabbit-holes.
Most terrifying of all, when considering the scale of the repairs and renovations required of New Zealand over the next 50 years, is the question: who is going to do it? If the best and the brightest graduates New Zealand’s taxpayers can produce are snapped-up by overseas recruiters, who are we left with? The graduates the recruiters didn’t want? Who wants to live in a country built by the second-best engineers?
And then there are those who not only failed to make it to university, but didn’t even make it to school? The unprecedented number of truant kids who struggle to read simple instructions and perform basic calculations. How do you build a country with the people our over-stretched and understaffed education system failed to engage – failed to teach?
From somewhere, New Zealand needs to find the hope and the energy that built the physical and human infrastructure we’ve been living off these past, tragically wasted, 50 years. The only place to start looking for either of these qualities is at the bottom. God knows, we’ve done little enough to foster much in the way of hope or energy in our social depths, but we’re not going to find it anywhere else. Because the people who robbed this country of both, were the people at the top – and most of them don’t even live here anymore.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.