1000s marched in Whangarei, Auckland, Papakura, Hamilton, Rotorua, Taupo, Hawera, Whanganui and on to the deep south. It reads like a weather report as the centres of outrage at the abuse of children in our homes following the death of Moko are listed.
Between individuals empowered to stand up in Justice for Moko and the Government charged with protecting its citizenry is a chasm that any successful democracy would fill with the organisations of civil society. These are the groups, like unions and women’s refuges, designed to connect individuals with the megastructures of government and society – the organised groups through which we learn to articulate our needs, solve problems, and express our democratic views.
NZ doesn’t have a functional civil society. Unlike Europe where power is devolved through European law to the states and within many of its states to these “mediating institutions” of civil society, New Zealand devolved power and responsibility directly to individuals, bypassing civil society altogether. The individual is the beginning and end of the story. The individuals who walk down Queen Street to helplessly vent their anger and pain and the Government’s Social Development Minister Anne Tolley who deflects any responsibility back to individuals when she says “two people put their hands up to torturing a three-year old…” Lucky escape Anne Tolley!
Government in a capitalist democracy has two jobs: firstly, to enable organisations of civil society to fulfill their role helping individuals manoeuvre through life and all its challenges; and secondly, to hold the power of the market in check. It has categorically failed at both. There is no adequate support for addressing family violence (the Hastings Women’s Refuge, for example, has had their funding cut by over $36,000 over the last six years) or the poverty that places families under pressure. Tolley’s flagged greater “market” encroachment, with the possibility of the failed multinational Serco picking up social service delivery, was too idiotic to win any public support, even from her own colleagues but nevertheless exemplifies the tendency of the Government to look to business to occupy the spaces it wishes to vacate.
Far from building strong social institutions that protect individuals and their associations from “the market” or supporting individuals to access the State, the Government is nurturing social dysfunction by individualising blame and personalising responsibility. It sounds entirely reasonable, if not entirely ridiculous, for a Prime Minister to say “all I can say to people is if somebody is homeless they should go and see Work and Income.” Well, why wouldn’t that work? Where was the funding in the Budget for the advocacy services, like Auckland Action Against Poverty, that would facilitate the conversation between the powerless individual and the powerful government institution?
Disempowered social institutions, like unions, are left with little choice after 25 years of emasculation under successive governments but to seek new leverage. They must broaden their focus to explore new ways to win. On the one hand this means organising in the chasm wherein lies our fractured civil society and, on the other, directly challenging the state that has abdicated responsibility for its own citizenry. We cannot wait to be invited for a cup of tea and a chat.
The Kristine Bartlett equal pay case is a direct challenge laid down by E tū in the absence of any ability to secure decent wages for 50,000 carers responsible for some of our most vulnerable in society. The legal victory brought the Government and its agencies to the bargaining table in the hope of concluding an out-of-court settlement. All the parties accept this is the best and quickest option. Yet negotiations couldn’t be done without the unions because they are the social institutions that represent carers as a collective – you can’t invite 50,000 workers in for a cup of tea and a chat. It isn’t often that governments in this country are forced to acknowledge the role of unions and this happened only because the alternative, leaving it to a court decision, was so unpalatable. The deal will create a better country for our workforce and their families, for the elderly whose lives are inextricably linked with their carers, and for the communities that will prosper from greater money circulating in the local economies.
An empowered and connected citzenry through resourced and recognised social institutions of civil society is critical for our democracy. It is critical for real justice for Moko. As individuals emerge from their homes to cry for help in the streets, the sound reverberates from building to building, normally occupied by the megastructures of government and capital, but on Saturday empty. Our alienation from both government and market is the responsibility of this government and the answer lies not in a chat across the chasm but a reconstruction of civil society so our communities can flourish again.