This is a guest post by Deborah Russell who the Labour Party candidate for Rangitikei. She holds a BCom (Hons) in Accounting and Finance, and a PhD in Philosophy. She has worked as an accountant in the private sector and the public sector, and she has been a self-employed consultant. She has taught Philosophy, Political Theory, Ethics, Business Ethics, Professional Ethics, Accountancy, and Taxation at universities in Australia and New Zealand, and she has worked as a senior policy analyst for the Inland Revenue Department. Dr Russell is currently a senior lecturer in Taxation at Massey University.
The first time I came up against a capricious boss, I was a student. I was working in a shop during the summer holidays. I worked hard in the run up to Christmas, and my supervisor was pleased. I was looking forward to the party in the staffroom after late closing on Christmas Eve, but about 4pm that day, the boss and owner of the store came in and threw me out. “You’re not working tonight. Off you go at 5pm.” No explanation, no courtesy, no acknowledgement of my hard work. Just an order to get out.
It was a small incident, but it was one that taught me about vulnerability. I had no redress, and no power, and because I needed that job, I couldn’t afford to fight back. I was vulnerable to his whims and his power.
I do not want to live in a society where people who have less are vulnerable to being ordered around by people who have more, where people who have less are treated as being less worthy of consideration, and are shut out from participating in our society.
I am standing for Labour because I want to help to build a society where each person can flourish, and can live the good life. This is an ancient ideal, coming to us from the Greek philosophers, and it’s a very contemporary ideal, manifested in our welfare and health and education systems.
In order to flourish, or to live a good life, people need to be free to order their own lives. They need to be able to choose work they enjoy (or can at least tolerate), live where they are without the threat of being ordered to move away from their community, attend church or not as they see fit, marry or not marry whom they will, and so on. They can live free from interference, and free from the threat of interference.
As it turns out, we are committed to this ideal in New Zealand. We may not think of it in the abstract terms of freedom and equality, but in practice, this is how we organise our society. In our country, if you become ill, then you will get medical care. If you lose your job, then you will be able to eat, because you will receive the unemployment benefit. If you are young, then you will receive a top quality education, good enough to take you anywhere in the world.
All of these things make us secure. We can live free, without needing to bow our heads and scrape before the powerful. Each of us is worth just as much as anyone else.
That’s the ideal.
The reality however, is sadly different. Too many of us live in profound insecurity, worrying all the time about whether you will get enough work hours this week, or about how to pay for the kids’ school books, or what you will do if the car breaks down, or you get sick. Then there’s finding enough money to pay the rent, and trying to manage in cold and draughty houses. Too many of us are looking nervously over our shoulders at politicians who tell us we are failures, business people who see us as cheap expendable labour, or a social welfare system that makes onerous and ultimately pointless demands in return for granting us subsistence.
If you live in a constant state of worry and fear, then you cannot flourish. And that’s what we have forced on too many people living in New Zealand, through undermining our health and education and welfare systems and developing a horrid narrative of blaming the poor.
Even on straightforward prudential grounds, it’s a bad thing to do. Each of us may be subject to outrageous misfortune, losing jobs or health or housing, and so becoming vulnerable to the caprices of the powerful. Our social systems provide a form of insurance for us, so that if the bad times come, then at least we will be able to put food on the table and educate our children so that they have a chance to do well.
Back in the 1930s, we made an agreement in New Zealand, that we would look after each other when times were hard. Our welfare system was never luxurious. But it was enough. We need to renew that agreement. Not through some sense of charity, but because we are committed to real equality. It’s the kind of equality that means that even if a capricious boss cuts your hours of work, you can still manage to get along, because there will be something else out there for you.
True equality is hard work. It doesn’t just happen because we say some magical words. Instead, we need to work together to ensure that each person has the basics of life. Enough to live on, and enough to be able to participate in our society, as free and equal citizens. “Someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work, and something to hope for.” That’s what we’re aiming for. It’s not much, and yet it is the most audacious goal we can have.