Navigating the transition to a new generation's country

“A benefit paid for this shirt.” That blunt fact of life from Whangarei Boys High head boy Dave Byrne prompted pause for thought at the “emerging leaders” forum at the Knowledge Wave conference.

The “emerging leaders” had been discussing cutting company tax and social welfare spending and had inclined towards both. Suddenly, the old notion of a “fair go” was on the table, a phrase given much air at the Knowledge Wave conference which followed the emerging leaders forum and incorporated them.

A “fair go” can mean two things and both were encapsulated in Byrne’s intervention. His mother needed state help, though would rather not have to. And that help was giving him opportunity to make the best of himself, which his track record already demonstrates.

Late in the conference John Tamihere, who has a lot more first-hand knowledge (from running the Waipareira Trust) than any of his cabinet colleagues about how people make use of benefits, advocated devolving management of state assistance to organisations closer to the people they deal with than the state is.

Tamihere’s concern is one which has been surfacing among indigenous leaders in our sorts of countries. At a conference in Australia last August I heard an aboriginal leader excoriate traditional social democratic state assistance as demoralising and suggest the Liberals might be worth a look.

Neither is a rightwing ideologue, though National pounced on Tamihere’s comments as supporting its desire to cut social assistance. What drives these indigenous leaders is despair that many of their people seem locked in dependency, despondency, drugs and descent into crime. They doubt the traditional welfare state can fix that.

For them a “fair go” is a support system that promotes self-reliance and dignity.

There is another person in this “fair go” equation: the taxpayer. The taxpayer wants reciprocity, determined efforts by the able-bodied on benefits to better themselves.

Without evidence of reciprocity trust is eroded. As the Knowledge Wave conference was told by Robert Putnam, trust is vital to a well-functioning society and a strong community, which in turn are vital to a well-functioning economy. It is harder to make profits in a disjointed, fractious society. The traditional welfare state palliatives are not fixing that fractiousness.

The “emerging leaders” who leaned towards cutting tax and welfare voted very similarly to the electorate as a whole last year. So if their leanings pose a message to policymakers it is not a swing to the right. But it may be a swing to the future.

Welfare Minister Steve Maharey is in fact edging into more dispersed management of social assistance, both within his department’s operations and through non-government agencies and social entrepreneurs. So, while some of Tamihere’s ideas were off his radar, the direction is not.

Which is just as well. The poser — not just in welfare but in all policy — for a government which wants four terms and more is how to anticipate and, in due course, be in tune with the New Zealand in which the 30-somethings now “emerging” will be the leading generation, without getting offside with the majority in the here and now.

This is the “post-” generation: post-independence, post-Rogernomics (the 1980s-90s economic reform) and post-Treaty. For this generation the great upheaval of the 1980s and 1990s is history and its arguments largely irrelevant. Not seared, as are their elders, by the frightening and exhilarating turbulence of those years, the people of the emerging generation view policy through different spectacles.

Those spectacles see straight into the creativity revolution conjured up by the fashionable visiting American guru Richard Florida at the Knowledge Wave conference.

Having grown up in a higher-tech and faster-moving world than the generation now in power grew up in, the emerging generation is more at ease with excitement and change. It is also greener and more comfortable with the Treaty as a fact of life. Its take on a “fair go” may well be different from today’s.

How can the government respond?

It can lead the debate. On green issues and Treaty management, it is ahead of the play, disconcerting its own generation, not least because it is not yet clearly articulating where it is headed on the Treaty. The Prime Minister’s passion for the arts gives her a window into the role of creativity and the cabinet is edging into a higher-tech future.

There is another route: to wing it as a small-c conservative outfit (for which the Prime Minister’s farm childhood has fitted her), changing just enough to part-lead the older generation and part-follow the next one. This is the predominant tone in the current rhetoric which, despite the lead on green and Treaty issues, betrays an obsession with the 1980s-90s battles and the older generation’s resultant desire for respite from efficiency-driven economic change.

Can the government navigate the generational change? This term will tell.