Margaret Wilson and the Struggle for New Zealand Sovereignty

Cover of The Struggle for SovereigntyWORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View events at the Christchurch Arts Festival was awesome enough to have Margaret Wilson speak out of her accumulated legal and political wisdom on Sunday 30 August. Bronwyn Hawyard, author and political scientist at the University of Canterbury, ably chaired the session.

It’s not often that, in your own town, you get a highly accessible ex-Speaker of the House coming to give an intimate talk about critical political issues. And listening to someone with her background had me in awe given that she’s the Former Attorney-General, Minister of the Crown, current Professor of Law. Nothing too serious …
UBS Bookstand

Shifting points of view sessions. WORD Christchurch events at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Sunday 30 August 2015. Flickr 2015-08-30-IMG_9004

Her exposition at the festival was related to her nifty little book The Struggle for Sovereignty: New Zealand and Twenty first Century State. We have a paper copies and eBooks in the library. This short work provides a concise perspective on how – since the economic reforms of the 1980s – the core parts of the sovereign New Zealand state have been eroded and compromised by globalization and the neoliberal, free-market ideology – basically the deregulation, privatization and legislation which seems to give large business entities powers which don’t keep them accountable to citizens.

Mrs Wilson argues that the NZ State: the public service, the legal system and New Zealand’s constitution, are (often by default) providing a fertile ground for deregulation which affects society in all sorts of detrimental ways. Over recent years, Government policy has re-ordered the New Zealand economic environment in keeping with the neoliberal philosophy, and this is exemplified in insecure work and the trend towards free trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

Insecure work – In another basic example of how things are going, Mrs Wilson points out that around 30% (over 600,00 humans) of the NZ work force is employed in “insecure/precarious” working conditions – meaning that such roles are “casual”, “fixed term”, “zero hours” etc. Which gives employees minimal bargaining rights for better pay and conditions and no certainty with regard to secure hours for the future. She claims this is due to the global neoliberal trend which NZ has adopted and favours “contract work” over “wages”, as keeping people on contract keeps them working more efficiently, whereas “on wages” people take too long – so the neoliberal (in)sensibility goes.

The TPPA could potentially enable large multi-national businesses the right to sue the NZ Government if our Government enacts laws which hinder their ability to make money – say if we had legislation which made plain packaging on cigarette packs mandatory – a business may have legal recourse if the courts deemed plain packaging affected their ability to make a profit.

Margaret Wilson and Bronwyn Hayward
Margaret Wilson and Bronwyn Hayward. Shifting points of view sessions. WORD Christchurch events at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Sunday 30 August 2015. Flickr 2015-08-30-IMG_8959

It seems our wonderful Pacific democracy is somewhat undermined – as policy can be rushed or hushed through Parliament without the public knowing or debating the nature of its contents. The Select Committee process can be circumvented due to the policy process being carried out “under urgency” – Parliament can rush through policy faster than normal because of some special “urgent” circumstances. All this basically means it’s very hard for the public to make submissions regarding certain policy initiatives. Which is what the Select Committee process is often for.

Margaret Wilson points out that it might be time for Kiwis to really get hold of our State and demand some changes to our Constitution, for example, which could usher in a more robust regulatory regime and pull back the neoliberal economic steam roller so as to make NZ a fairer, more equitable society – maybe resulting in some better contractual conditions and pay for workers somewhere down the line.

However, I asked her if New Zealand even has a “constitutional culture”, and she said one of the things which came out of the most recent constitutional inquiry was that Kiwis generally don’t have a basic understanding of what a constitution even is because its not taught in schools or referred to and celebrated as a crucial part of our history. Unlike the Americans, who have a very staunch constitutional culture. Just think gun control!

Maybe time to teach politics in schools.

Her book “The Struggle for Sovereignty: New Zealand and Twenty first Century State”, is a great tool – a short and to the point read about these technical political issues.

Here’s some quotes from her session:

The evils of inequality

Cover of The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do betterThe gap between the rich and the poor has become one of the most topical issues in many countries post GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and post Neo-Liberal economic reforms. More and more people seem to feel that the rich (particularly the super-rich) don’t pay enough tax and have managed to sneakily get away with taking no responsibility for the GFC while the rest of us languish in our lacklustre lifestyles working squillions of hours per week…and all the while paying our fair share to keep society running! Or so the Russell Brand sentiment goes.

So its against this backdrop that The Spirit Level should be read, I guess…

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone is among a handful of cornerstone works for anyone who is interested in 21st century political and economic thought. I reckon. In fact, I’d almost argue that it is a grand thesis which seeks to give policy advice on how to solve (or markedly reduce) a catalogue of society’s ills through its recommendations and findings.

Inequality = poor outcomes

The key message that authors (and epidemiologists) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett want to drive home is that the more “unequal” a society is, the more likely that society is to manifest higher degrees of illness, mental illness, drug abuse, widespread poor educational outcomes, obesity, social mobility and cohesion, violence, teen pregnancy, among other societal ills such as rapacious consumerism.

The focus on “inequality” is really on Income Inequality – the income gap between those at the top, middle and bottom. The argument being that countries with larger income gaps experience more societal ills.

International research

Their claims with regard to what drives poor outcomes in terms of societal well-being are backed up by some quite robust research comparing and contrasting various developed countries (and comparing States to States in the USA). Lots of graphs, statistical data etc drawn from reputable organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank (among many others).

However, not all variables are taken into account which might frustrate some people – claiming rates of obesity are higher in the USA compared to Japan because of the USA’s rough private healthcare system is a bit unfair when you leave out factors such as Japan’s healthy and entrenched culinary traditions, and genetic factors (skinny genes).

More tax…good?

But, it also seems that countries which have higher income taxes and high levels of wealth redistribution (i.e gather large amounts of tax revenue to pay for generous education, welfare, healthcare and maternity leave programmes) are more “equal” than countries which have low taxes and far less social spending – we see less of the aforementioned health and well-being problems if we practice the former!

However, the authors seem more concerned about Income Inequality (even if the average income is quite good but the top income markedly better), not so much tax. But what is outstanding is that pretty much all of the “most equal” countries have really high income tax regimes (Japan, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway).

So you are kind of left to draw your own conclusion about which is the most important – income equity or high tax rates, or both?

Sadly, New Zealand and Australia rank really highly in terms of inequality according to the authors, and therefore, this is what drives a variety of problems here and in Oz. Not just “people being lazy” etc.

Don’t be put off the by the academic sounding nature of the book, it’s really well written which makes all the technical sounding stuff really palatable.