Bread and circuses


    Viewing this last week as a snapshot in time, we now seem near-fatally disconnected from common sense history – human kindness being an early casualty in the bloody wreckage. Which might be why, outdoors in the small hours on Sunday, I found myself mentally apologising to the moon for the damage that we are doing to its view of the giant, magical, jewel-green and blue ball in its sky.

    A sound primary school education in 1950s New Zealand gave my generation a fair appreciation of the place that bread and circuses played in keeping the populace distracted during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

    The French Revolution in 1789 saw the same forces in play with a glittering aristocracy disporting itself in plain view, though minus the free bread for a starving populace. ‘Let them eat cake’ has been a byword for plutocratic excess ever since. Britain’s near-run escape from the same fate came mainly from the uncoupling of absolute power from inherited privilege and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

    Reputable headlines say our planet (and only home) is burning, global coastlines face inundation and our blue/green ecosystem of infinite variety and intricacy in mortal danger of collapsing.

    Yet we haven’t even started on remediating the ecological damage or making plans to take care of each other. Climate science denial, which had almost vanished a few years ago, has returned with a vengeance.

    I don’t remember a nastier or less constructive election year, but nothing really prepared me for Emperor Brown’s intention, announced this week, to build a later-day Colosseum on Auckland’s waterfront, complete with fireworks and human sacrifice. Two months ago we were threatening to close Citizens Advice offices. This week, the city’s rigidly hieratical bureaucracy is no doubt swelling with cadres of project managers and lucrative contract writers for a bauble which is likely to be sunk, quite literally, by circumstance.

    A prudent leader would have put aside two billion dollars’ worth of rapidly-appreciating airport shares to meet climate uncertainty in a beautiful, sprawling city closely surrounded by sea; not to spend on the futile paper-pushing for which the council has become notorious.

    In the concurrent electoral frenzy, we had the noisy but policy-poor Parliamentary opposition laying down plans for 50 years of major roadbuilding for us to zip around on, complete with a new and unsubstantiated narrative that Aucklanders won’t be parted from their shiny, upsized new cars; electric or otherwise.

    You cannot force reasonable people to stop using their cars so much; you just give them cheaper and faster alternatives, as Transport Minister David Parker said this week on RNZ. It’s a pedestrian sort of policy that is getting no bouquets but has been working well for a decade in a city that’s already selling off the last of its parking and trains are coming into their own.

    Regrettably, the battered Labour government then piped up with plans for two tunnels under the Waitematā harbour and light rail, which would also tie up civic capital and expectations. Have we really not learned anything? Auckland’s budgets to overseas multinationals, contractors and HR consultants benefitted from the $10billion gravy train distributed overseas in the last 10 years and the city’s a basketcase of unfinished contracts.

    Elected representatives need to stop and think.  Do we have time to wait 50 years for a spurious roading promise.  Or a tunnel or two. Can citizens afford to give Auckland Council $5 billion a year while profligacy and negligence rack up huge deficits to be plugged by austerities in the main-street?

    Neither centralisation nor de-regulation have served us well as a naturally rich but small country where, as the Green party noted last week, just 311 families own more wealth than the bottom two and half million New Zealanders. That inequality is not an inevitability. It is a political decision. And throughout history, embedded inequality and plutocratic excess has marked the final form of successive civilisations.

    We are a rich, food-producing country with too many paupers, and we still have potential for plunder – most recently by lobbyists bashing away to extract a billion dollar industry from the Hauraki Gulf fisheries.

    No doubt, what’s in play now is wrong in so many ways but it shouldn’t be taken as the whole picture.

    Do we want to be run by party political cant or do we want to finally find our footing and begin to make sure – in a thriving country that puts its own citizens first – that everyone has a fair go at housing, education, welfare, good food, health, social mobility and sound and meaningful contribution. That investors are tamed with well-understood regulation and overseas investment is productive for the country, not merely extractive. And that we get back in touch with each other and form up to meet the challenges – from the bottom up.  • Liz Waters

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