Our islanders – and kids – need aid too
How amazing that the somewhat bizarre King George Tupou V of Tonga can rustle up $4 million, invite a strange collection of guests including Sir Elton John and the odd Rolling Stone like Sir Mick Jagger, order robes from London tailors, a one-off gold sceptre like the Queen’s and give exclusive broadcasting rights to the BBC for his coronation in July.
If you think His Pacific Majesty is having a ball, you’re wrong. He’s apparently having three of them – one for “very, very important people” – Tonga’s very own A-list, another for “very important people” and another for the rest who did not make the cut.
Come to think of it, all this is more than amazing. Actually it’s annoying when you know that New Zealand hands over $11.5m in aid this year to keep his kingdom afloat! (We’re assured none of our dollars are going into the royal knees-up.)
But, much closer to home – 800km off the South Island coast – Chatham Islanders need government money every bit as much as fortunate Tongans. And to keep their lifestyle afloat. Those diesel costs and power bills which are just an irritation to mainlanders are killing their community.
Chathams’ cost of living is 40 percent higher than on the mainland. Diesel for everything including power plants costs them six times as much as us. The freezing works have shut down and shipping livestock by boat can mean selling them at a loss.
The population is shrinking – now 600, 100 gone in 18 months.
They hope for a wind turbine to give them cheaper power, and an upgrade for the port and the airstrip.
The government talks of action on power within a year. Our islanders don’t know whether they can wait that long.
Maybe the answer is to give up being impoverished New Zealanders, declare themselves independent, design a flag, have a coronation and ask Wellington do-gooding politicians for aid.
Or they could simply migrate, maybe to Tonga where handouts seem easier to come by – including those millions in NZ dollars.
Meanwhile, the government has been spending up bigtime – putting the odd billion or so on the card to buy itself a big boys’ trainset, plus a cool $139m to give the air force fly-boys new choppers.
But on one crucial investment – to solve a current worry over this generation of children and to protect others not yet born – the chequebooks stay closed and the Beehive is silent.
Remember how various spokesmen like Michael Cullen talked so earnestly and eloquently about guarding strategic national assets when the issue was simply an airport? Well, the same definition applies when the asset is our children.
We must move to save the endangered children who are our greatest treasures – not runways, trains and military hardware and terminals. The challenge has been spelt out in the detailed report of The Child Poverty Action Group. Aptly named Left Behind, it details New Zealand’s failures.
That report – which I fear is already stuffed into a government bottom drawer – shows New Zealand has: • One of the worst rates of child poverty in the developed world • At least 130,000 children living in families dependent on benefits • Among the worst rates of preventable child illnesses and deaths from injuries of any country in the developed world • The fastest growing gap between rich and poor in the OECD during the last decade of the 20th century.
The report includes more than 30 recommendations, costing about $3 billion, to eliminate poverty by 2020, including a universal child benefit, reducing tax on low incomes and providing free and accessible healthcare for all under-18s.
A typical first reaction from the government was to welcome the report, to talk of pride over its child health policies and its willingness to debate it. Then that bottom drawer gaped open.
The time for debate is long over. This is no time for silence. This issue has been a political football for too many years. Remember John Key was ridiculed when he raised the issue of an underclass last year.
The government didn’t listen to him then but it can’t as easily ignore the highlyqualifi high-profile experts, including doctors, social workers and economists who have now added their names, their reputations and their deep concerns to this disturbing report.
These are not wild-eyed bleeding hearts with no basis for their fears or with some way-out political barrow to push.
These are people like paediatrics professor Dr Innes Asher, and Auckland University senior economics lecturer Susan St John.
Apart from the authors, the only person who has come out of the report’s release with any credit is Auckland city councillor Cathy Casey, very aptly from the City Vision group.
She resigned when Citizens & Ratepayers councillors – known derisively and perhaps understandably as “Cits and Rats” – blocked a motion that council officers report on ways the council could work to alleviate child poverty in its area.
So, obviously our elected employees in more than the Beehive have problems dealing with the grim present and future of our children who should be treasured as our country’s greatest assets. Instead, too often, we weep a few tears – sometimes not even that – and bury them.
To contact Pat Booth email firstname.lastname@example.org. Replies are open for publication unless they are clearly marked Not for Publication.