What will it take for New Zealand to build a just future? The ideas put forward at this year’s Just Action Conference had a common theme.
The Beatles said ‘all you need is love’, Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warner told us that ‘love lifts us up where we belong’ and the Pretenders promised, ‘I’ll stand by you, won’t let nobody hurt you.’
Love-song lyrics aren’t words to live your life by because they are often lofty statements that appear unattainable to the everyday person, or are simply undeliverable when push comes to shove.
And when it comes to addressing our nation’s failures around poverty, mental health, affordable housing, suicide rates and the growing list of societal concerns, the promises and solutions offered by government agencies can feel as empty as love songs on repeat on a gloomy Saturday night.
So … why did I start thinking of these love songs when economist Shamubeel Eaqub began to talk at The Salvation Army’s Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit’s Just Action conference in Auckland last month?
Because he mentioned the ‘L’ word.
Speaking about the possibility of a just housing future, Shamubeel suggested the key ingredient that has been lost from our politics and public policy—and which could turn things around—is love!
I found myself thinking of Tina Turner as I considered, ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ It sounds like such a cheesy thing to say, but does love really hold any merit when we’re thinking about something as serious as housing?
The housing crisis didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. ‘The way we have this conversation as if it happened yesterday and we can fix it in a jiffy is, of course, completely and entirely wrong,’ Shamubeel told Just Action’s 220 delegates.
But if we had paid more attention to the kind of policies, attitudes and politics we have been living by as a nation, we might have picked up the warning signs before it became such a mess, he added. It was a ‘human right to have secure housing, to shelter … and we have sacrificed that for a bunch of other policies and goals. That’s not right!’
It was comforting to hear an economist of Shamubeel’s reputation say the economic stuff around housing can be solved. It was sobering to also hear him say, ‘It’s the social stuff that lasts for decades and decades and is much harder to solve.’
He acknowledged that public policy was difficult and said it required a collaborative approach across central and local government, iwi and churches, with philanthropists and others. ‘But none of that is going to work unless we as individuals have a much greater sense of love and empathy for people that need help.’
A housing panel chaired by Alan Johnson, a social policy analyst at the Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit, attempted to unpack some of what Shamubeel had said and to address questions from delegates.
Claire Szabo, CEO of Habitat for Humanity New Zealand, said New Zealand had a problem with how it thought about housing. ‘We don’t conceive housing being about people, we don’t conceive housing being directly related to mental health, directly related to drug addiction services, problem gambling, etc, and all of the things we need to achieve and sustain housing.’
Major Campbell Roberts, founding director of the Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit, agreed that vision around housing was lacking and had been for some time. ‘As a nation we have failed to actually care for people. We have failed to be people of love, we have failed to be people of justice and we have failed to be people of truth. For me, that was the challenge [in Shamubeel’s presentation]: we need to be engaged in whatever way [we can] to do something about it.’
Continuing to raise the importance of love in the housing equation, Vanessa Kururangi, a community housing activist, said, ‘Humanity needs to override everything we do. Aroha needs to be present in how we action change.’
Claire Szabo agreed, saying, ‘I think the other part of the equation is the humanity inside the habitat, and the roles we all need to play in achieving sustainable housing.’
Greg Foster, National Director of Salvation Army Social Housing, reflected on the changes he’d witnessed in the way New Zealanders view housing. People never used to view housing as their means to retirement, he said, but after 26 years overseas Greg said, ‘Every dinner party, people are talking about housing. It’s in our psyche; created by a system that has encouraged this sort of speculation.’
The role and responsibilities of landlords was also discussed as the panel unpacked changing views around rental housing in New Zealand.
‘I am a landlord and my obligation is to be the best landlord I can be to people who are living in my home,’ said Greg. ‘I need to make sure it’s warm, dry and safe.’ The situation had changed for people so that there was now huge inequality in housing provision. ‘This inequality is evil,’ Greg said. ‘We need to bring back a system of love and encouragement.’
Claire also highlighted this, particularly when it came to accessing affordable housing. ‘There is overwhelming discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, disability, health outcomes, people living with HIV—all sorts of people will have a great deal of difficulty for no good reason whatsoever.’
Claire believed landlords didn’t need to behave in such a discriminatory way; in fact, they shouldn’t. ‘As a system we need far more options for people who can be at the mercy of a heartless market,’ she said.
Prue Kapua, National President of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, continued the conversation about New Zealand’s housing track record in her keynote address as she reflected on the first State housing offered 80 years ago. ‘State housing was not offered to Māori, as officials considered that Māori could not afford the rents and that the mere presence of Māori would lower the tone of State housing areas.’
In 1944, a separate pool of Māori houses was made available, but these houses were not designed for the Māori way of living, she said. This accommodation was known as ‘Māori Affairs houses’.
As Prue painted a picture of how politics and public policies had impacted Māori, she suggested that ‘the most debilitating legacy of colonisation is the effect it has had on our perceptions of ourselves, because that is the legacy’.
‘To lose hope and belief in ourselves is a devastating consequence,’ she said. ‘And to lose faith in the systems that should be there to help, that is what deficit reporting without context does.’
To provide a just future for children, they must become the priority, because their wellbeing was too important to be left to chance, Prue concluded. ‘We all benefit from children doing well and striving for their potential—and we are all responsible for making that happen.’
She called for change in how New Zealand addressed this. ‘We cannot continue with structures that privilege the majority and punish those not within that privileged group.’
Speaking from that position of privilege was former New Plymouth Mayor and self-confessed recovering racist, Andrew Judd. His honest account of how his worldview shifted as he owned up to his own privilege, bias and racism towards Māori was both confronting and moving.
Addressing the statement ‘we’re all one’ that people unwilling to entertain Māori representation sometimes used, he responded: ‘If we’re all one, let’s all be Māori. We’re in New Zealand, we’re all one—so let’s be Māori!’
Although it was true to say that all New Zealanders were citizens of one country, to say that they were all one people was to deny Māori the right to be and identify as Māori. ‘Who gave you the right to take that away?’ Andrew asked.
He shared how his personal stand for Māori representation—a voice at the table—brought out all kinds of responses from the community. One man paid for Andrew’s lunch because he was so grateful for what Andrew was trying to do. And within five minutes another man was telling him how much ‘they’ hated him for what he was trying to do to their community.
Andrew says a realisation came: ‘I couldn’t judge this angry man, for he is me and I am him—both Pākehā, with an unjust fear deep within.’
In the end, Andrew says he chose not to seek re-election, because ‘I couldn’t be the bait for hate’. ‘This wasn’t a question of rates, potholes, art galleries or roads; this was a question of who we are, how we care and love each other. How we acknowledge, respect and celebrate our differences in the context of New Zealand, which is a treaty-based nation.’
Once again the idea of love being the answer was being offered—this time by a man who had experienced a personal paradigm shift from hate to love. ‘If I’d stood [for re-election], it would have just kept us simply divided and, worst of all, the children are watching—and the children are learning,’ Andrew explained.
Tim Costello, former CEO of World Vision in Australia, shifted the focus from home to abroad as he described how refugee children from Mosul in Northern Iraq who could talk but wouldn’t (because of the trauma they had experienced in their war-torn country), were being ‘literally loved back with play and dance and painting.’
World Vision staff were loving these children back ‘into just the thought that the world isn’t evil—that they can trust, that there are adults they can trust’. He challenged delegates with the statement: ‘If we lose love and the ideal of Jesus’ love in this world, we won’t know who we are … we are made for community.’
Just Action 2017 was focused on ‘creating a just future’—and while there was no collusion among its speakers, there was a definite consensus that love was vital to this objective.
If we make our decisions from the basis of love as Shamubeel and other speakers suggested, our housing, welfare services, education, politics and public policies will shift from their current state of lack, and the future for the next generations will look very different.
One more song …. Leona Lewis sang, ‘When you need some shelter from the rain, when you need a healer for your pain, I will be there time and time again.’ That sounds like a really good start!
A just future? Sounds like something New Zealand urgently needs. And what’s love got to do with that? Everything!
by Shar Davis (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 21 October, pp6-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.