Monday, 30 December 2013

Towards an economy fit for women, children and future generations:  initial reflections

New Years Eve 2013 marked the end of the 120 year anniversary of New Zealand's world leading campaign to win the vote for women. So I was disappointed to reflect that from 2014, all the prime-time political broadcasting roles in this country will be filled by (white) men.

It is not that I have any objections to any one of the individual broadcasters or commentators, many of them are thoughtful, interesting and engaging speakers and thinkers. But I am concerned if a cluster of men, with similar life experiences, influence public opinion in a small nation during a key election year.

 New Zealand news reporting often struggles to shake off a self referential and insular approach to political commentary. In a small island state which only has one radio station as the nations', non profit, public good, national broadcaster, we already face a difficult situation. It is not that any individual political commentator will tell us what to think (let alone agree with each other!), but their collective clout will certainly influence what we as citizens pay attention to, and what issues we think about.

So it matters very much if New Zealand's  major commentators all share similar life trajectories or experiences.Why? Because the contemporary problems we, like all other nations, face right now are very difficult and tackling these requires a wide variety of insights, perspectives and viewpoints.

Four key issues I argue confront all democracies at present include: unprecedented youth unemployment as our economies create wealth for some, but are failing to generate long term, sustainable new work for all;  dangerous environmental change as economic growth pushes at the limits of a finite  planet;  growing inequality as the gap between rich and poor widens everywhere; and weakening democracies as communities struggle to hold global corporate financial power to account.

 Benjamin Barber reminds us, that tacking complex collective problems is essentially a political task: "What shall we do when something has to be done that affects that affects us all, we wish to be reasonable , yet we disagree on means and ends and are without independent grounds for making the choice?" (p 120-121).

In complex situations, it matters very much that our choices, options and debates are enriched with a wide variety of voices and experiences. Yet at present as it looks like New Zealand political debate will be dominated by the voices of men. That is concerning, because in 2013 our small democracy was already exposed to a  cacophony of at times quite aggressively opinionated  male commentary, on everything from statutory rape,  to politics and civic morality.

Aggressive political debate is not confined to New Zealand and I don't I expect a new cohort of male broadcasters to perpetuate this norm, indeed many of these individuals hold quite strong views about nonviolence and all strive for informed debate. But hearing from yet more men in public life won't  improve the situation facing women right now.

Nor can we hope the rise of social media will counter the absence of women's voices. Commentators like @LauriePenny note the rise of misogyny on social media, and others have observed that once a wider norm of bullying and violence takes hold, it can be perpetuated in many areas of public debate.

Why women's voices will matter in 2014

However despite at times some quite vitriolic attempts in 2013 to belittle women's achievements, or silence their voices, some New Zealand women, especially young women did excel, in literature, music, politics, the economy, sciences, community life and in online media.

And in the coming year, 2014, women and young voters will again be crucial, this time in determining the outcome of the next NZ general election.

There are lots of reasons for this. First is a very practical one. In liberal anglo-speaking democracies it is largely women who still get other people to vote, and they are also the people who make talking about politics, and thinking about politics and the economy both accessible and possible.

It is mums, aunties, grandmothers, teachers, and neighbours who do much of the unsung civic work of democracy. The old joke that women are out the back making the tea while men plot the revolution is sadly not just a joke-women’s voices are far less frequently cited by news media sources, and women do not rank highly in university impact assessments, but it is the everyday conversations of women, their scholarship, research, writing and community action that makes political debate accessible and makes long term social change possible.

Much research has shown it is women who cajole sons, daughters, partners, elderly relatives, neighbours, nieces and nephews, grandchildren to both to register and get out and vote. It is the nation’s mums who retrieve the lost voter registration forms from where they have slipped down the back of the fridge and who encourage the new 18 year old to fill out a the form and who then post it.

It is grandmothers and aunties and older sisters, authors, teachers, female pop singers and celebrities,  who make forming and expressing political opinions Ok for young women in a country where many women still feel politics isn’t really about them or that the “ladies” in politics are not really like them.

It is mums shopping at the supermarket, or budgeting for rising housing costs who can cut through economic rhetoric and statistical hocus pocus to think about the consequences of what is going on in the economy. And it is women who are picking up the pieces in a context of reduced government social spending, as care work is returned to the informal economy of mums, grandmothers, aunties and sisters.

A snap shot of the political economy of New Zealand party campaigns

New Zealand’s  incumbent, conservative National Government, has focused extensively on “good news” for “working families”. However a quick scroll through the Prime Minister of New Zealand’s twitter page, reveals a future vision for New Zealand that is frankly fictitious for many women. The party is also under some internal pressure, it is not clear why the voices of compassionate conservatism have been silenced in public debate, despite Bill English's efforts, it is promoting harsh social policies that are difficult for many women to feel comfortable with.

In 2014 the incumbent National government may be hopeful that short term economic growth will lead to an election victory but at what long term cost to a party if it fails to rejuvenate its membership or win the hearts and minds of voters or worse, splits the country in a deeply divisive election campaign? This will be a hollow victory.

Moreover the short term good news of economic growth is not reaching women and families where youth unemployment, youth suicide, environmental degradation and  child poverty continue to be central and troubling concerns. To quote Noble Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, we continue to tolerate the intolerable.

NZ  Labour also has a long way to go to win women voters back. But it has a head start. The recent rejuvenation of the party was an important signal that women will feature in the campaigns of 2014 and beyond,  but the absence of women candidates contesting the 2013 Labour leadership contest was also, frankly, deeply disappointing in a significant suffrage year. Labour also has a long way to go to capture the new post growth economics fore-shadowed in conservative ex-MP Marilyn Waring's ground breaking work "Counting for Nothing or former Green Party Coleader Jeanette Fitzsimons' politics of enough. Progressives in New Zealand need to be debating how work can be created in new kinds of child and environment friendly economies which focus (perhaps counter intuitively) on lower productivity, high employment generating low carbon investment in so called  "care, craft (high end manufacturing) and creative" industries. However the focus on a living wage and tackling income inequality will at least direct citizen attention to a key weaknesses in our current economy, based as it is on short term, highly unsustainable growth.

In the past I was never much of a fan of the co-leader balanced gender leadership model of the NZ Greens, but under the circumstances, I’ve become quite fond of it! However the Greens have also struggled with the way the media attention continues to be on Russel Norman's voice, despite Metiria Turei's efforts. And the Greens face the difficulty that they need to campaign on new politics and economics of prosperity  in a local media environment which can be economically conservative, and where progressive ideas of post growth economics have been slow to be reported.

In New Zealand First a new significant voice for 2013 was Tracy Martin's. Her hard fought campaigns for schools and against the short term private financial investment model of Charter Schools, reflected her background on school boards and community service organisations and her voice brought a refreshing sincerity to public debate.

New ideas in NZ politics in 2013 

To mark the passing of 2013 I offer some  links to writing and works and ideas of New Zealand women thinkers, contributing to a sea change of political values on the left and right, that recognise why the current political and economic situation is not sustainable and why a child friendly, low-carbon, job-rich and more equitable future is so badly needed.

1.       In NZ  literature my pick is Eleanor Catton, her novel the Luminaries also subtlety brings the new ecological economic ideas about what we value and why, into the arts. The work celebrates love, but it also reminds us of the legacy of NZ’s individualistic, male dominated, gold rush thinking and its consequences.

2.      In NZ music the triumph of Lorde can not be under-estimated, and her anti-consumption critical lyrics have also, subtly opened new political ways of thinking for young women  that resonate directly with new youth economic debates internationally.

3.      In NZ democracy, I can’t go past the voice of Dame Anne Salmond who used her award as New Zealander of the year, to remind New Zealanders of all political view points, to hold on democracy and what is atstake in current reforms.

4      In NZ economics, Prof Jane Kelsey has simply driven a formidable critique of the impact that greater trade liberalisation will have on New Zealand political and economic sovereignty but Prof Susan StJohn has been also very effective. She and colleagues at CPAG took a  case to the Court of Appeal arguing the NZ tax structure subsidises low wages by topping up family incomes (allowing those paid low wages to claim tax credit) but then discriminates against children in the very poorest homes who also really need this income top up because they don't receive this help as their parents are not in paid work. In trade unions, Helen Kelly and Sandra Grey’s voices have been equally significant arguing for fairer pay at the low income end, and fairer tax for high earners.

5     In NZ social policy and health there are many terrific women rethinking what is happening - especially significant is Dr Liz Craig’s child poverty monitor and Ngai Tahu’s Arahia Bennet, here in the South who has a unique ability to bridge political divides and to encourage people to listen and work together for significant long lasting change.

 Internationally there are some significant writers and speakers also making an enormous difference, here are just 5:

Kate Raworth’s donut model ofeconomics- reminds us that we need work-rich, low carbon economies 

Shelia Jasanoff’s work on scienceand technology offers new ways to think about how communities and cultures can be heard and valued in a changing climate 

Martha Nussbaum on why we need the arts and her work on deep freedom, what we need to support the capability of all citizens to flourish 

 And Aung San Suu Kyi, on securing freedom.  Her work reminds us constantly that really significant far reaching political change, takes determination, courage, and grace.

But my hero of 2013 remains the astonishing Breanna Fruean –who, at just 14 lead a phenomenal campaign on climate change in Samoa and her voice has far reaching significance.

Best wishes for 2014, and my thanks to those working for the flourishing of children and young people everywhere.