Our is­lan­ders – and kids – need aid too

Auckland City Harbour News - - News -

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 off­pat@snl.co.nz. Replies are open for pub­li­ca­tion un­less they are clearly marked Not for Pub­li­ca­tion.

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