Chlöe Swarbrick: New Zealand pays Covid price for structurally unfair political system

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Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woods (via Zoom) at the post-Cabinet press conference. Photo / Mark Mitchell

As activists, we are used to fighting. Like those who fought for civil rights, gay rights, and the five-day workweek before us, we realize that power gives in without a fight.

You will be told that this is just the way the world works, that these rules are inevitable that rewards “hard work”. No, not the hard work of a cleaner. Not the hard work of raising children while carrying most of the household chores; not the hard work of a teacher, nurse or midwife. The hard work, it seems, is when you own assets and watch them enjoy.

If you keep fighting, if you keep reminding those in power that everyone deserves a life with dignity, that everyone deserves opportunities, you will end up receiving crumbs. Instead of being offered a place at the table that serves the plates, you will be told not to bite the hand that feeds you. It’s just the way the world works, they’ll say.

It was in law school that I realized that there are a lot of complicated words we use to describe fairly simple concepts. They are generally Latin. These are expressions like “caveat emptor” (which the buyer is wary of), “actus reus” (culpable act), “mens rea” (guilty in spirit) and “tort” (tort). It is the language of an ancient profession that arms and protects people who want to use the law to get what they want out of it.

These are the bricks that build a legitimate fantasy home until proven guilty. In Aotearoa, it is literally the language that sought – and still seeks to this day – to justify the murder, looting, and theft of mana whenua and their whenua.

Those who know these words have the keys to the kingdom. They are more comfortable in a suit and tie. As the proceedings of Parliament last week showed, they see the Nike Air Jordans as foreign and out of place because they are not used to uniforms from pop culture, the street, or ordinary people.

Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick.  Photo / Tim Onnes
Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo / Tim Onnes

Those who do not know these words are more likely to have a hard time navigating a system that was not made for them, that does not respect them or does not value them.

Quarterly benefit statistics show us that 3,408 additional sanctions were applied to social assistance recipients. The main reason for the penalties is failure to respect appointments. At the height of a global epidemic, the poorest people in this country have seen their benefits cut.

These sanctions were lifted during the 2020 epidemic. Rents were also frozen. Higher education students have seen their loan allowance for “course fees” doubled; while it was laughable to claim that there is nothing “school-related” about paying for groceries, utility bills, or rent, that money – which eventually has to be paid back – saved the education of students.

None of these supports were brought back this time. In its place, the government announced last week a $ 940 million fortnightly package for businesses.

No one denies that small business owners do things doggedly. A week ago, I was fighting in select committee with national and law MPs who would rather we rely on the goodwill of business owners rather than demand that they reduce rents during closings. I tabled an amendment in Parliament to demand that the legislation go further and faster by tipping the scales in favor of these small businesses. We will wait and see how the political parties vote on it this week.

This pandemic became difficult to manage as soon as it took root in our most structurally marginalized communities. I say “structurally marginalized” because no one is inherently marginalized. Policymakers, like politicians, have made decisions over decades that have built a system that decides who gets rewarded and who doesn’t.

As I said in my 2017 inaugural address, “These decisions inform who is rich and who is poor, who gets sick and who gets better.” The point has never been so uncomfortably poignant.

Child welfare advocates do not listen to ministers like corporate lobbyists. Tenant advocates, student presidents, social workers and community problem solvers do not have parliamentary swipe cards, as these lobbyists do.

The bags in their eyes show sleepless nights trying to get whānau out of cars and into stable housing, deliver food packages, and write another bloody report in the vain hope that it might make a difference. Evidence, in the eyes of policymakers, is almost never enough.

Garbage won’t do it anymore, especially when it’s dwindling and people are too exhausted to ask. But we don’t get a seat at the table unless we organize ourselves and fight for it.

Aotearoa’s first labor day was in 1890, when union members celebrated their incredible fight, won in 1840, for the five-day work week. For weekends. A day of decent pay for a day of decent work. It is a future as valid as our past. If this pandemic has taught us anything, nothing is politically impossible.


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