Sunday, April 30, 2006

Deborah Coddington: 'Gummint' can't fix everything

Quality of life, according to a poll conducted by the Business Council for Sustainable Development, will determine which political party gets to be the Government after the next election.

Chief executive Peter Neilson said the survey results indicated "a stunningly loud message from 86 per cent of New Zealanders that they understand sustainable development to be important because they want to look after the things that are good about our country and make sure they're there for future generations".

Any survey will tell you what you want to know if you just frame the questions the right way. I doubt 86 per cent of New Zealanders would say they want to trash the country and ensure there's nothing left for future generations - no fresh water or electricity, old people dying in the gutter, scorched-earth environmental policies, and a drug-addled unemployed youth population.

Sustainable development sounds lovely, but what is it, exactly? Sustainable yield? And by whose standards is sustainability measured? An Auckland property developer who crams the maximum number of cheap houses on one piece of land? Or the alternative-lifestyler who builds a mud-brick house with composting loo, solar heating, wood-fired stove and organic gardens?

Most environmentally sensitive Kiwis would opt for somewhere in between, but I'm deeply suspicious of those urban liberals who dutifully recycle their chardonnay bottles and airfreighted New Statesman mags while shoving food scraps down the wastemaster. Whatever happened to composting?

The Business Council defines sustainability as "growing the economy and developing the country in a way which balances growth, protects the environment while also exercising social responsibility".

Weasel words - shallow, meaningless and trite. They look harmless but make perfect fodder for political parties wanting to mould us in their image of what constitutes the New Zealand Quality of Life.

"Social responsibility" - what's that when it's at home? Grabbing millions of dollars from the pay packets of the workers to spend on snails? Tax-paid MPs assuming celebrity status and stitching up exclusive media deals? A party that moans about US trade deals but is too scared to entertain a referendum on the nuclear-free issue?

There's not a huge difference between the two old parties - Labour and National - when it comes to government-speak. "Grow the economy" means "spend more taxpayers' money"; "develop the country" is licence to get involved in business ventures about which they have few clues - broadcasting, airlines, railways, venture finance. And "protect the environment" is an excuse to spend public millions on buying up private land which the taxpayers themselves are then excluded from using. Meanwhile, private property rights are breached with impunity.

Then they neglect to deliver on the basic necessities individuals need if they want a better standard of living. Learning to read, write and add up properly, for example, is now considered quaintly archaic. Some 18 per cent of New Zealand school leavers go into the world illiterate, yet we blithely continue to pretend this isn't happening; if they just go on to tertiary education and get some doozy qualification they'll be okay.

As someone who'd happily read books all day and night, I believe denying children skills to immerse themselves in a good book is nothing short of child abuse.

What did the slaves want most when they were freed after the American Civil War? To learn to read.

But increasingly our education system favours those with enough income or savings to be able to choose their children's school. If you're Mr and Mrs Low-to-Medium Income with five children and you don't fancy their chances at the local school - tough.

What's more, according to one female principal interviewed on TV3 recently about the NCEA and the Cambridge exams, those parents who want their children to sit the latter are snobs.

"It's like wanting a Mercedes car in the garage," she said.

Tell that to the uneducated family of the future who can't even afford a bicycle.

And speaking of transport, isn't the ability to get to work and back - fitting in the supermarket, picking up the kids, seeing the doctor - essential for a decent quality of life? So what's the point of having pristine beaches, clean and green pastures, preserved native forests, when our roads are too clogged for anyone to enjoy accessing the great outdoors?

Parks and recreational areas for city dwellers contribute to quality of life, but with a public transport system so seriously deficient and unreliable, where's the incentive to leave the car at home?

I hope political parties will dismiss this poll result as nothing more than a device to attract more companies to join the 51 members of this lobby group - and they should be congratulated for that.

But encouraging voters to look to gummint for the good life is a futile exercise. No one in their right mind would willingly assign their choice of car, design of house, style of dress, or gardening habits to their local MP.

To preserve the New Zealand Quality of Life, it's to ourselves we should look, not a bunch of representatives in one or another political party.

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