2018 – the year of quiet so­cial rev­o­lu­tions and strikes

The Dominion Post - - Opinion -

It’s that time of the year again when we look back to see if we can spot any pat­terns that dis­tin­guish the year from pre­vi­ous ones.

Usu­ally the ex­er­cise is doomed as dis­cern­ing im­por­tant so­cial trends over 12 months is well nigh im­pos­si­ble as they gather steam so slowly. More of­ten than not, the year looks like a mish-mash of good and bad, with no defin­ing themes or con­sis­tent ideas emerg­ing.

En­cap­su­lat­ing the flavour of this year, how­ever, is un­usu­ally easy as we have ex­pe­ri­enced a quiet rev­o­lu­tion. In the past the world has seen calami­tous class or in­de­pen­dence rev­o­lu­tions where the yoke of the op­pres­sor is thrown off with blood in the streets. New Zealand es­caped most of those up­heavals – al­though let us not for­get the Ma¯ ori wars – but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t shared in the more re­cent so­cial rev­o­lu­tions.

As the world has moved from class pol­i­tics, where your eco­nomic sta­tus and back­ground de­fined you and your political al­le­giances, to­day, and es­pe­cially in 2018, we saw the cul­mi­na­tion of iden­tity pol­i­tics as its cham­pi­ons breached the walls and took over the citadels.

Al­though fem­i­nism and its causes have a long his­tory, 2018 is re­mark­able for their re­newed promi­nence. Even tak­ing ac­count of the an­niver­sary of women’s suf­frage in New Zealand, I can’t re­call any other year in the past 20 or so when pub­lic dis­cus­sion about women’s con­cerns has been so much to the fore.

The old bat­tles of suf­frage, abor­tion and prop­erty rights have been won but equal pay, board­room rep­re­sen­ta­tion and free­dom from ha­rass­ment have been pow­er­ful is­sues of­ten tra­versed and de­bated over the year. The #MeToo move­ment has opened up a new bat­tle­field and gained mo­men­tum so quickly it had per­pe­tra­tors on the run and all men re­think­ing their at­ti­tudes.

It’s not that these is­sues have made no progress in pre­vi­ous years. It’s more that they reached a tip­ping point in 2018.

The year will also be re­mem­bered as a tip­ping point for Ma¯ ori, es­pe­cially for te reo. The good­will to­wards the lan­guage seen this year has been un­prece­dented and sud­denly it feels like New Zealand is headed to­wards bilin­gual­ism of a sort. Te Wiki o te Reo Ma¯ ori prompted much more than the usual to­ken ef­fort, and other moves, such as Ra­dio New Zealand’s em­pha­sis on te reo and Crown Law Of­fice lawyers in­tro­duc­ing them­selves to the court in Ma¯ ori, sig­nal a solid fu­ture for the lan­guage.

The ques­tion of how much of Ma¯ ori cul­ture should be re­garded as sacro­sanct and non-ne­go­tiable has yet to be de­cided but at least the fu­ture of te reo looks more secure.

Of course plenty of re­sis­tance, some of it ugly, to the head­way made on the is­sues men­tioned can be ex­pected. Not all of it will be red­neck in ori­gin. It can be ar­gued that cul­tural flu­ency is all very well but it doesn’t put food on the ta­ble. How­ever, the bat­tle for the moral high ground has been won and it is point­less and in­creas­ingly churl­ish to re­sist.

An­other word that has of­ten dom­i­nated the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion this year is equal­ity (rather than poverty). De­spite low un­em­ploy­ment and a gen­er­ally buoy­ant econ­omy that re­quires mass in­jec­tions of im­mi­grant labour, the gaps be­tween rich and poor have drawn a lot of at­ten­tion.

It hasn’t helped that this year has also been the year of the strikes, al­though none of the usual ones dis­rupt­ing the fer­ries, the freez­ing works and the wharves. Over the last two decades many peo­ple’s wages have hardly kept pace with in­fla­tion and this year is catch-up. Iron­i­cally, it is the very party that many of the strik­ers voted for that is hav­ing to deal with the un­rest.

Talk about in­come equal­ity brings us back to the class de­bate but of­ten this year the ar­gu­ment has been about priv­i­lege, an­other word of 2018. You heard com­men­ta­tors pref­ace their re­marks by say­ing they were talk­ing from a po­si­tion of priv­i­lege. I never saw my­self as a par­tic­u­larly priv­i­leged per­son but ap­par­ently, as an old white male, I am in the top ech­e­lon with no ex­cuses for my lowly po­si­tion.

Priv­i­lege also car­ries over­tones of un­earned ben­e­fit. This will be re­sented by peo­ple who have worked hard and made sac­ri­fices to earn their of­ten pre­car­i­ous stan­dard of liv­ing. Per­haps the fo­cus on priv­i­lege is a recog­ni­tion that in our in­come-earn­ing abil­ity we are at the mercy of the na­ture and nur­ture of our back­grounds.

We will need to ensure there is al­ways a fi­nan­cial re­ward for skill and ef­fort but 2018 has been un­usual in an in­creas­ing ac­cep­tance that more re­sources, de­served or not, will have to go to the bot­tom 20 per cent. That will mean higher taxes.

And this has been the year of Jacinda Ardern, who took her baby to the United Na­tions and told the gath­ered states, many of them bas­ket cases, that a good start­ing point in the face of iso­la­tion­ism, pro­tec­tion­ism and racism was kind­ness and col­lec­tivism.

Maybe 2018 will be seen as the year of naivety and mis­guided hope. But maybe it marks a small step to a bet­ter so­ci­ety.

It can be ar­gued that cul­tural flu­ency is all very well but it doesn’t put food on the ta­ble.

Nurses strik­ing. Equal­ity has been a buzz­word of this year.

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