Civil society


    Kaitiakitanga is integral to the spirit of Waitangi Day. Reflecting the Maori belief in a deep kinship between humans and the natural world, it codifies a raft of enviably precise measures for our stewardship of the land, the waters, our social obligations and our shared commons.

    Its essential inter-connectedness is, one hopes, an idea whose time is coming. 

    As our temperatures nationally soar into the 30s and towards 40 degrees, you’d have to be pretty brave to argue against the evidence that change we cannot control is in our fairly immediate future.

    Trees are sprouting wildly, throwing out blossom and fruit on the same branch. Cyclonic weather is feeding on warm El Nina currents and whole New Zealand towns have disappeared under deluging rain that seems more tropical than Latitude 37.

    It’s also pretty obvious where much of the problem lies. With economic power concentrating in the hands of a few; a tiny global elite is experiencing a great flourishing while the masses below them, at varying rates, are left behind.

    As a recent Guardian editorial pointed out when the landmark World Inequality Report was published late last year, the richest one percent reaped 27 percent of the world’s income between 1980 and 2016 while the poorest half of humanity got 12 percent.

    Many people have been lifted out of the deepest poverty, notably in India and China, but it is the extremely rich who have benefited most in the last 40 years.

    Inevitably, money buys power, the prevailing ideology of privatisation, deregulation and now austerity effortlessly hog-tying the collective power of the electorate and any democratic restraint.

    As the same editorial said, global politics have been poisoned by the embedded culture of the perpetual making and lavish expenditure of wealth – which comes at the expense of almost everyone else.

    “There is nothing inevitable about how much economic liberty the rich are afforded or how long stagnant incomes last. 

    “Citizens must recover the idea that politics offers democratic protection, rooted in an egalitarian tradition,” it said. 

    It’s not as if the contributing factors are even very well concealed any more.

    We know full well the obvious tax evasion processes employed by the very powerful. And that the rich do not pull their weight in the societies on which their riches depend; that essential public services in civil society are being systematically eviscerated and that we can have democracy and we can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.

    We also know that the GDP at the heart of the Economy deity is a flawed tool, given that the entire economic activity it measures has shifted from manufacturing to financial activity. We no longer make stuff.  We, or at least some of us, push money around.

    Measuring the top speed of any given car tells us what it can do but little about whether it will hold together for the next 100,000 km, keep the kids safe, get us to work on time or be with us in our old age.

    Likewise, GDP figures tell us what’s been measured but without nuance or even statistical integrity. They can never tell us what should be happening.

    Least of all do they tell us if we are achieving national goals or what are the policies that are best able to achieve those goals. That is the purpose of elections.

    No one ever denied that democracy can be messy. Elections are, effectively and rightly, a national fight about what kind of car we collectively need to move our country forward. 

    Information can help exclude poor choices and highlight better ones but ultimately the choice comes down to the direction we want to head in, our priorities and the things we are willing to sacrifice to get what we want. 

    As we wrestle with this adjustment, the fact that the concept and terminologies of kaitiakitanga have been increasingly brought into public policy is a powerful, ready-made tool. 

    Like neo-Platonism in the European tradition that derives the whole of reality, including ourselves, as indivisible from the greater ‘One’, it reflects the notion that people are the ‘offspring’ of nature and are bound by a responsibility to ancestors and descendants to protect the natural environment which is our ‘kin’.

    Money, as our grandmothers and tupuna said, isn’t everything. It helps, but, like a fast car, it is a good servant and a bad master.

    Rich really doesn’t have to look like a tax-haven super yacht. • Liz Waters

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