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The three ghosts of Christmas (with apologies to Dickens)

News and views from New Zealand
Dennis Dorney

Christmas Past

Being born in Bath, UK, which was blitzed during World War 2, I have clear memories of buildings bombed into oblivion but, as a child, had no concept of the horrors visited on the people.

Rationing in the post-war years provid- ed a simple diet, which, backed up by school meals for all, produced probably the fittest generation that Britain had seen either before or since. Work was plentiful and while few people earned a lot, everyone had enough, so that a working man could feed a family of four and possibly own his own home. In the early ’60’s Harold Macmillan was able to say to voters, without contradict-ion “You have never had it so good”.

The Beetle era followed unexpectedly at about that time and was declared “decadent” but, looking back, that whole post-war period now seems blissfully serene, naïve and optimistic. It was possible to believe that ‘change’ and ‘progress’ were synonymous. Cars and domestic white-goods were becoming commonplace. Life seemed to be a never-ending Christmas present.

I suspect that life in NZ would have been very similar. So where did the dream go? If Britain alone had lost its way it could be blamed on bad management or the loss of Empire. NZ’s excuse could be the loss of its markets when Britain joined the Common Market but the failure of the dream to deliver its promise is universal. Who now talks of “Progress”? Or of prosperity and equity? Very few. The tantalising present has passed.

No Christmas present

Most ERA members, if asked where the good times went would say that the fault lies with the dominance of neo- liberal market driven economic theories. There is plenty of evidence to support the claim.

The Christmas period itself, a time of intense consumerism, shows up some of the faults in our economic system. About a quarter of all annual retail sales in NZ occur in the short period from the build up before Christmas to the end of the post-Christmas sales. The media invariably enthuse that this splurge is evidence of a booming economy; this argument would only be persuasive if it measures cash sales. In fact the figures only measure credit card purchases, which probably means that people are going into debt to fund their largely unwanted presents. The increase in personal debt in recent years is worry- ing enough without the pressure of Christmas shopping.

Another sign of a tightening of the purse strings is research showing that the number of Kiwis who have never given to charities has doubled in the last eight years. This could signify financial pressure or it could mean that Kiwis no longer have the compassion that they once had. Is that surprising, considering that neo-liberal theory has no time for pity? The market will deliver the most happiness to the most consumers, won’t it? No, it wont if you add up all the economic costs.

This relatively recent lack of compass- ion for others is manifested as a rise in gratuitous alcohol-fuelled violence, and especially concerning domestic offences. Alcohol and violence statistics among New Zealanders are amongst the OEDC’s worst.

The cost of a week’s stay in a NZ prison is about $1900, so the costs are high. In NZ juveniles over 15 years of age can be imprisoned together with hardened criminals and can be confined in their cells for 23 hrs per day. The effects on their mental health and attendant costs can only be guessed at. These people are not just criminals – they are victims too, but Kiwis don’t care.

Nor do they care for the New Zealanders, who are due to be deported from Australia, and have been held at the infamous Christmas Island detention centre under conditions, which are a denial of their human rights.

No Christmas presents then for those unfortunate enough to be customers of our largely privatised prisons. Nor for those who don’t care about the conditions under which these people live because “they deserve it”. No presents either for those with unrepay- able student debts, or with Buckley’s chance of ever getting a house, or even of getting a paid job in our slowly imploding economy. Those who have endured a bad year and are old enough to remember the promise of the 60’s, will no doubt be wondering “How did it get to be like this?”

Who will get Christmas presents this year? Firstly Tim Groser who negotiated NZ’s case, largely unsuccessfully, in the loathed TPPA contracts, has been promised the role of Ambassador to the US with a strong expectation of a knighthood. All those Aucklanders, who became millionaires this year simply by owning their house, should be happy too. However since house prices are stabilising now, next year might make them sweat a bit.

A Christmas yet to come

Against all the odds, we must hope. Our beloved leaders are in Paris and do at least agree that there is a problem, which needs to be fixed urgently. Our own leader is there and made a speech so at variance with our proven track record that NZ won the Fossil Award , which apparently is given to the leader doing least about fossil fuels, and which failed to get a mention in any of the NZ media, as far as I know. We should be proud to have beaten Australia (and Canada) at something at last.

We must hope that before the participants head off home, they will have found the will to enact the solutions, which really are there.

Trying to remain up-beat, I won’t mention ISIS hovering in the background at Paris like Banquo’s ghost, or mention that today I read that genetic engineers have found a way of cutting and snipping DNA in such a way that they can destroy mankind in two generations.

Smile. Be happy. Enjoy your Christmas. While you can.

Dennis Dorney is an ERA member living in New Zealand and is a regular contributor.

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