Eva Bradley wrote an opinion piece yesterday after some protestors challenged the Prime Minister in Napier, entitled ”Poor’ should Stop playing Blame Game’.
Frankly, I’m too bored and frustrated by vacuous media commentary to want to put any work into eloquently crafting a more analytical response – so excuse my brevity and bad mood.
Bradley mobilises rhetoric about poor people and poverty that is connected to some broader social and political discourses. She tells us ‘the (reputed) poor were having a whinge’. “Having a whinge” – while obviously part of Kiwi slang – is a feminised act. Whinging is usually associated with women (the “whinging wife” or “his girlfriend was having a whinge”), and when it is used in relation to men it is often done to mildly discredit their masculinity as well as their concern (i.e. saying “He’s having a whinge” is comparable to saying “he’s being a wuss”). The phrase “having whinge” is a means of trivialising the concern of the “whinger”. It’s a way of delegitimising their claims.
Why would it be so important for Bradley to delegitimise the claims of some people protesting about poverty in Aotearoa? Why would their chant, “Stop the War on the Poor?” get under her skin? I know some of my friends outside of Aotearoa would be incredibly bemused by the idea of local media in the Hawkes Bay standing up for the Prime Minister. They would expect that media would take the role of critical inquirer in the very least, and at times expect that media might be provocative or deliberately antagonistic towards political leaders. It is about an expectation that our democracy should be robust. Politicians are doing a job, and part of that job is dealing with both media and the public. And yet, mainstream New Zealand often treats John Key as if he is a mix between a celebrity and an affable uncle, whose congeniality makes up for his forgetfulness and contradictory statements.
Bradley’s claim that ‘the “poor” should take a reality check” speaks to the way mainstream New Zealanders often harbour a sense that Aotearoa is ‘a lucky country’ or that we are fairly egalitarian. Our national imaginary is informed by the Pakeha colonial experience of “escaping” from poverty and the class system in Britain. As significant as this was as an affective experience for Pakeha people’s great-grand-parent or grand-parent generation, it doesn’t fit with social reality in Aotearoa. Neoliberal policy reforms in the ’80s and ’90s meant the stripping back of the welfare state that Aotearoa had previously known.
Susan St John’s (2013) research article on income-related child poverty in New Zealand shows that 270,000 New Zealand children live in poverty, some experiencing serious deprivation over extended periods of time (see Child Poverty Action Group).
Bradley drags out the usual tired, truisms about how the poor could avoid poverty; ‘attitude’, ‘hard-work and commitment’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘tough love’. She claims ‘I was free to rise or fall according to my own efforts and decisions’. All of these ideas are examples of neoliberal discourse, that premise the individual and thus seek quasi-psychological solutions for poverty at the level of individual action. The problem with neoliberal discourse is that it obscures the relationships between people and communities; institutions; and social and economic structures. The reality is that within a global system of neoliberal capitalism, New Zealand’s economy is linked to global market forces, flows of capital and financialisation.
People have a right to be angry about the level of poverty in New Zealand. They have a right to hold political leaders to account for their policy decisions. While poverty is complex, there are also tangible steps that governments can take to reduce poverty. So before you vote, how about asking the following of each political party:
- What would you do to reduce child poverty?
- What actions will your party take to ensure that children in poor families have the same access to education and health care as other children?
- Benefit rates are currently too low relative to high housing and food costs in New Zealand, meaning that children in families on benefits are at risk of nutritional lacks and poor health. Will your party consider raising the benefit base rates to account for raised costs of living?
- Working poor families are also impoverished in New Zealand because of the low minimum wage, and relatively high household costs. Will your party raise the minimum wage?
- What actions would your party take to create jobs in New Zealand?