Last year, I tried to “give up” politics for Lent. I am admittedly addicted to politics. It’s like a dangerous drug, for me. It makes me angry, crazy, and depressed, and yet once I get going I cannot stop. It’s interesting, though, since coming to New Zealand, I’ve almost adapted the attitude of an outsider when it comes to American politics. I almost hate to admit it, but I feel relieved that I’m here, far away from the insanity. However, if all I’m doing is running away from one crazy system, then I’m not really experiencing the culture where I am now. What would be the point of that?
With that in mind, I’ve decided to do a little research into the New Zealand political system and compare similarities and differences with US politics. I’ve been working on this post, now, for over a week and so far, the best I can do is, in the words of a friend I was talking to yesterday, sound like I’m studying for a citizenship exam!
So, I’ll try to be brief about the boring stuff. New Zealand is a Constitutional Monarchy, which means that Queen Elizabeth, II, is the Head of State of the “Realm” of New Zealand. It is also Parliamentary Democracy with proportional representation. Effectively, this means that there are multiple (more than 3) parties in the game and the number of seats each party has in Parliament is proportional to the number of votes the party’s candidates (and the party itself) get. The leader of the majority party is the Prime Minister. Currently, this is John Key, and he is a member of the National Party. You can read all about this on Wikipedia.
New Zealand is not divided into states or provinces but is governed in its entirety by the Parliament. Regional and territorial issues are managed by a variety of boards and councils, including District Health Boards which manage the delivery of healthcare to the people in their particular region.
The rest of this post is more observational than factual. First off, the idea of “proportional representation” is quite appealing to me. It lessens the probability that one party can essentially “take over” and assert its agenda to the exclusion of all other voices. Instead of a “winner take all” system where a party has to have a winning candidate in a certain district in order to get a seat in government, New Zealand has a system where a political party only has to get 5% of the vote to have a seat in Parliament. Mind you, in reading through the list of parties, it seems that they are all some version of the progressive/liberal/moderate/socially conservative/fiscally conservative spectrum. On the “far left” are those who want to the government to take care of all of the social needs of its citizens and raising taxes is a good thing to do to achieve that. On the “far right” are the people who want to rein in government spending, want lower taxes, AND, in some cases have a fairly conservative social agenda. HOWEVER, these are people that would be seen as “moderates” in the US. The “National” party which is currently in power seems, to me, to be fairly moderate, although it is criticised for wanting to gut social programmes and for giving tax cuts to wealthy corporations and being too beholden to special interest lobbies? Sound familiar? Only the scale is much different. When I read/hear these things, I shake my head and say, “If you ONLY knew.”
RELIGION, POLITICS AND “MORAL” ISSUES
One notable thing about the “socially conservative” agenda is that there is not the vitriolic rhetoric you hear in the US. First off, most people aren’t really all that concerned about what the RELIGION of the candidate is. Of course, Christians might tend to vote for a Christian, if they thought that person would do a good job of representing their values and interests as Christians. The same goes for people of any other religion or, for that matter, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender. But it doesn’t become a subject that’s open to scrutiny in the question of “can this person do the job they are being elected to do?” Second, the two biggest “litmus test” issues for conservative candidates in the US are, still, abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, don’t even get me started on how ridiculous it is to debate these things when the gap between rich and poor is growing at a stunning rate, when children in one of the wealthiest countries in the world are starving, when people are going bankrupt because they can’t pay their medical bills. In New Zealand, same-sex marriage is not legal and there is some debate and discussion going on about it. However, no one is trying to amend the (non-existent) constitution to deny that right to gay people. In fact, sexual orientation is listed in all the non-discrimination policies that I’ve ever read here. So, how does that work? How can gay people be free of discrimination but not be able to “get married?” Well, for one thing, New Zealand DOES allow all couples to have a Civil Union which basically is legally identical to marriage. I don’t quite get the difference, actually, since couples in a Civil Union (straight or gay) have the same access to medical decision making, inheritance, tax breaks and other benefits that married people do. In any case, it is, for the most part, a non-issue.
Similarly, there have been some efforts to outlaw abortion. Briefly, groups like “Operation Rescue” came over and staged protests. However, attempts to actually ban abortion entirely have repeatedly failed in Parliament and the issue seems to have died down and all but gone away in the political arena. Abortion is legal in New Zealand but there are reasonable (in my opinion) restrictions. It can only be performed if two doctors (one of whom must be an OB/GYN specialist) agree that it must be done to protect the life and/or health (physical or mental) of the woman. It’s the “mental health” part that is invoked in most cases. I know there are efforts, such as government subsidised contraception and family planning programmes, to try to reduce the need for abortion. This is something I need to research a bit more, however. I know there are abortion providers in the area but I have never seen people carrying signs with pictures of dead babies and to my knowledge, abortion providers do not go to work wearing bullet-proof vests. (But then, guns are a whole other issue. I just found out the other day that the police are not armed!)
WHAT DO THEY CARE ABOUT?
So, with 2 of the issues that take up so much of the time of American politicians virtually out of the way, what do lawmakers have to do all day? Well, they decide on how to spend money for things like healthcare and care for new parents and young children. They decide on how much to spend on infrastructure and supporting business. I’m sure they waste time on things that tax payers don’t think are important. But if they waste too much time on those things, guess what? They get voted out!
WORK, INCOME AND POVERTY
It is, of course, very complex to try to define poverty and then quantify it. To make matters worse, comparing the US to NZ is extremely difficult because the two countries define poverty differently and, remember, the US is a REALLY big place with a lot of variation in income, employment, and cost of living. New Zealand has a minimum wage of $13.50 per hour. The NZ dollar is worth about US$0.85 but that still puts it at around US$11.45. The US minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Some states have a higher minimum wage but many do not. The minimum wage in the US is, almost universally, not enough to live on. It seems to be designed to keep people in poverty while allowing businesses to thrive. A worker making minimum wage in the US and working 40 hour weeks would earn about $15,000 per year. When I went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website I found that the workers in the lowest paying jobs in the US (burger-flippers, dishwashers, etc) had a median income in about the $18,000 range, just barely above minimum wage. On the other hand, a similar list for New Zealand had the lowest payed workers, including wait staff, baristas, caregivers, and fast food workers, making something in the $31-32,000 per year range. Both lists had doctors at the top, with American anaesthesiologists making well over $250,000 per year and New Zealand doctors as a group making around $143,000 per year. The bottom line is, if you have a full time job in New Zealand, you will be making more at the bottom and less at the top than you will in the US BUT that means that the gap is much smaller and those at the bottom have a chance of actually making a LIVING wage. The median hourly pay in NZ is $20. Incidentally, the spread of housing costs is similar between the two countries depending on the area and there are certainly some areas in New Zealand where housing prices are too high for the wages people are earning in those areas. There are poor and homeless people in New Zealand and there are NGOs as well as government programmes aimed at helping them. A lot of the recent poverty and homelessness can be attributed to the disastrous earthquakes in Christchurch. They are still rebuilding from that, and facing huge insurance issues and increases in premiums. However, today, someone told me that his homeowners’ insurance premium had skyrocketed all the way up to $600 per year! It’s all relative, I guess.
ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE
It seems to me that this is not up for debate in New Zealand. We are responsible for our environment and keeping our planet healthy and happy. Full stop. Again, this is an area I need to research more, but my observation is that people fairly readily accept the taxes on carbon emissions (such as petrol, or gasoline) and the recent start of government subsidised kerbside (the kiwi spelling of “curbside”) recycling pick up has been widely embraced by just about everyone in town. I’m sure there are debates on how, exactly, to allocate resources to ensure cleaner air and water and what government’s role should be in that effort. But the facts are the facts and the kiwis simply cannot understand how supposedly intelligent, educated Americans can deny those facts.
THE INSANITY OF IT ALL!
Some of the assertions I have made here are backed up by facts and others are wild speculation based on what I see and hear and experience. My overall impression of life in New Zealand, so far, is that there is a lot less of the “shared psychosis” that I see in America, whereby people jump on a bandwagon for a cause, no matter how lame that cause might be, and can’t let go. The economic picture, while certainly scary for a lot of people in NZ, is even more dire in the US with the huge gap between rich and poor widening rather than shrinking. Healthcare is in danger in NZ because the government has subsidised so much and costs are going up. However it seems that there is a saner approach to fiscal responsibility, with a party that sticks to this policy agenda rather than getting distracted by micro-managing people’s personal lives. If American politicians could buckle down and get the work done instead of spending all their time trying to get re-elected and worrying about how they can next niggle in people’s lives, imagine what they could get done?!
In a coming post, I want to get into more detail about one of my big social justice concerns: Human Trafficking. But that will require still more research so it might take awhile. It's much easier for me to just rattle off my thoughts than to actually sit down and wrangle with facts. But that's important, too, and so wrangle I will.