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Ideas to reshape Aotearoa

HOW to improve Maori-Pakeha relations, how to change attitudes towards beneficiaries and how to make the most of the 250th anniversary two years from now of the first formal contact between Maori and Europeans were among questions I put to The New Zealand Project author Max Harris, as chairman of his presentation to about 250 people at War Memorial Theatre on Wednesday night.

The latter was the opening question.

“I’m sure this has been discussed, that the history of this place goes back hundreds of years before Cook,” he said.

“This is an opportunity to mark one moment in that history. It also might be an opportunity to have a conversation about decolonisation.”

That might involve some discomfort but it was a conversation that involved taking stock of where we come from, of the negative effects of colonisation that need to be understood and undone, and the re-centering of world views, he said.

“In concrete terms I think that means ensuring Maori stories, perspectives and leadership are part of this commemoration.”

Taking a long-term view seemed to be a challenge for this country. How do we deal with that? I asked.

“We have to make a choice as a society which traditions and values we want to make central,” Mr Harris said.

“There is a record of short-termism that comes from three-year elections, from politicians who are self-interested. Not in all cases, but in some cases.”

There were traditions of long-term thinking in Maori communities, such as kaitiakitanga (stewardship) for tamariki and rangitahi, he said.

“And there are moments in New Zealand history where we have taken a longer-term view. One that comes to mind is the accident compensation system, ACC, which is not perfect but was adopted in the early 1970s and has provided a long-term way of dealing with accident cover.

“We need to decide which parts of our history we want to choose from and we need to choose the long term, because problems like climate change are too urgent to ignore.”

How could we build a more cohesive society in this district where the population is about 50:50, but there are misunderstandings and not as much interaction as there could be? I asked.

“One step forward for Maori and Pakeha is greater learning of te reo Maori, particularly learning te reo Maori in schools,” Mr Harris said.

“We know learning one language helps with learning other languages. We also know it is a window into a broader world view.”

Learning te reo Maori was not a silver bullet but it could improve interactions with Maori. Te reo was an official language of New Zealand, he said.

Making good on rhetoric“We need to make good on that rhetoric,” he said.

“The really difficult thing is how we use our privilege as Pakeha people, while not continuing domination of the space; how we use our privilege while also getting out of the way to allow for shared leadership.”

In his introduction to the evening, Mr Harris talked about the need to change attitudes towards the homeless and people on benefits.

“How do we change the widespread suspicion beneficiaries are living off free money or that the homeless are looking for a hand-out?” I asked.

“I think there are surface-level things we can do,” he said.

“Increasing the amount of money beneficiaries receive might not be popular at the moment but it is essential people have a standard of living to get by.

“Evidence backs up the fact the benefit is not enough. Increasing the amount on the benefit gives people more respect and dignity and can shift how we view beneficiaries.

“At a deeper cultural level, as with prisons and criminal justice, we need to move away from a punitive mindset to a mindset that is more caring and involves trying to show love to as many people as we can, not just in our own group but to people outside our group.”

That shift could be achieved in part by championing politicians and people in the community who live out values of care and love, he said.

“That's how that difficult cultural change can start to happen.”

Asked what part the media could play in how people view different cultures, the homeless and the unemployed, Mr Harris said one thing that could be done was to try to expand the types of people writing stories in the media. That would include people who had experience of families on benefits or of family members in prison. A wider range of perspectives would be represented, he said.

One step could be the provision of scholarships and media training for people from a variety of backgrounds.

“Long-form journalism also helps provide more nuanced stories, rather than simple stories that resort to catchphrases and stereotypes.”

“Public interest” journalism involved investigating issues at greater length, and contributed to the public good.

“This might require more funding of public interest journalism from the community or from the government.”

Should our centralised system of government be devolved to more regional decision making? I asked.

More power to local government“I do support local government having more power and more of a culture of experimentation, where local governments are given space to try out new ideas,” he said.

This tied with his thoughts about universal basic income.

“Glasgow, I think, is about to announce it will run a pilot basic income. That has come from the bottom up, Glasgow’s council. I feel like local government isn’t always given the space and resources and freedom to do that kind of thing in New Zealand.”

Amendments to the Local Government Act had narrowed what local government could do, so one concrete step would be to reverse those amendments, he said.

“We also need to change the culture to where central government trusts local government to try things out. Iwi also have an important part to play here and need to have similar space offered. That is part of Article two of the Treaty of Waitangi.”

Such change would lead to innovative approaches to policy, as well as possible failures. People needed to be comfortable with that, he said.

I asked where the money would come from to fund the changes he promotes.

Some needed money but others did not, Mr Harris said.

Reducing the prison system“Reducing our prison system would save us a lot of money.”

To keep someone in prison for one year cost about $90,000.

“That's far more than it would cost to fund tertiary education for a person for a year.

“In parts of our political system we can downsize and add funding. In other areas we need more investment. I think we also need a debate about tax. I think probably we could pay a little more in tax.”

Under a Conservative government in the UK, the top rate of income tax was 45 percent. In New Zealand the top rate of tax was 33 percent, he said.

“A better approach to housing, by reducing the number of people who sleep rough, could contribute to reduced costs in our criminal justice system and reduced costs in our health system.”

At the beginning of the evening he said his own serious health issue began the “strange journey” that led to writing The New Zealand Project.

While working in Helen Clark’s United Nations office in New York three years ago, a rare, life-threatening heart condition came to light.

Surgery was months away so, to take his mind off it, he took part in a “very unusual” exam at Oxford, the All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam.

It is a 12-hour exam made up of four tests. Those who passed faced about 60 gowned Oxford lecturers who asked about what candidates said in their exam.

“I realise this is not what everyone would do in the lead-up to surgery, but people who pass the exam are given seven years of funding to do any kind of research or writing,” he said.

He passed, and embarked on The New Zealand Project.

A core theme that arose during his research and interviews in New Zealand and overseas was the decline in values in New Zealand politics.

Technocratic politics, the disassociated language of politics, and politics as the preserve of a small number of people had led to this decline, he said. There had also been a loss of sense of direction.

“Rather than a discussion of vision, we see a kind of muddle-through pragmatism and an approach that suggests politics is about managing a company as opposed to leading a country.”

In The New Zealand Project, Mr Harris said it has become harder for people to get involved in politics, “but I believe most New Zealanders have strong opinions and want to express these”.

“I really hope people start having more conversations about the ideas in the book.”