Report by NewsroomPlus.com – Contributed by Olexander Barnes
It was a very cold and wet Friday night, one of those nights where you want to cancel all your plans to go out and spend your night in, hugging the heater, but despite the horrible weather Saint Andrews Church on the Terrace was packed to hear journalist and social activist Bryan Bruce speak about child poverty.
The event, hosted by the Wellington Quakers, was titled “What We Know. What We Say. And What We Do”.
It started with an introduction by the Quaker organisers who discussed who the Quakers are, their early history of persecution during the English civil war and their values of equality. This was followed by a quick introduction of Bryan Bruce before he took the stand.
He started his lecture talking about his parents and grandparents. Describing their lives of incredible hardship in a society that had no safety net to catch people who had fallen on hard times, which in that day and age were the poor. He told of his grandfather dying at home of cancer with only his daughter (Bryan’s mother) to care for him, and that his mother would be haunted by the screams of her father for many years after his death.
Then he proceeded on to talk about his own birth in Scotland in 1948, right at the beginning of the National Health Service in the UK, a time of great change when free heath care began to transform the lives of those around him. How it meant that he was able to survive bouts of childhood disease that only a few years before would have been fatal.
Though it was a period of change Bryan did stress that his early life was a still a very hard one and casually joked that when he was sent away to live with his aunt when his father migrated to New Zealand to become a baker, that if there had been an anti-smacking bill in force at that time, his aunt would be “serving 25 to life”.
Then his life changed dramatically when in 1956 he and his mother boarded a ship to New Zealand to live with his father who now had stable employment.
He described his early life in New Zealand as a tough one, but a fair one, one where the politicians of the day considered you to be like a neighbour and wanted to help. It was a time that a person could earn enough money from their weekly paycheck, that they could put some of it into savings and within 5 years they could have enough for a deposit on their own home, which was exactly what Bryan’s parents were able to do.
The talk then moved away from personal history to the social and economic history of the past 40 years in New Zealand.
Bryan focused on the transition of economic thought during the 1980’s. Keynesian economics had dominated Western economic thinking from the end of the Second World War and championed a collective society and the welfare state, but gave way to the current Neo-Liberalist economic thought which promotes individual enterprise and free-market policy.
It was during this transition of economic thought in New Zealand that was heralded by the arrival of the David Lange Labour government and Rogernomics in 1984 which Bryan Bruce believes was the start of a growing inequality within New Zealand and an increase in child poverty and the diseases that go with it.
He also made the observation that this change in economic policy led to a change in social thinking, from a move collective way of thinking to a much more individualistic and ideological way of thinking.
From this point the talk moved on to the current situation of child poverty in New Zealand – including reference to the many easily preventable diseases such as rheumatic fever which are making a return due to the low quality of housing for the poor, of which a disproportionate number are Maori and Pacific islanders.
Brian leveled a great deal of criticism towards the current government during this point, for their lack of action and at times denial towards child poverty, something that he put down to their neo-liberal ideology preventing them from taking effective action against it.
The talk ended with a brief question time where Bryan Bruce was asked about his views of the TPPA, which he considers to be a terrible agreement that will reduce New Zealand’s ability to create its own laws along with preventing cheaper versions of generic medicines from entering the market and benefiting the less well off. The other question that was asked was if it was possible to change the thinking of people who did not see child poverty as a problem, of which he confessed he did not have the answer.
Though it was one of those instances of preaching to the converted, all in all the talk was very informative and it was refreshing to hear someone who was passionate on such a fundamental subject. Any public discussion is good discussion when it comes to social issues like poverty and inequality.