Trend lines show that we’re heading in the right direction in all sorts of ways, from race relations to ram raids. Max Rashbrooke celebrates the Upturn.
How would you describe New Zealand right now? According to recent analysis, the nation is either “wet, whiny and inward-looking” (new prime minister Christopher Luxon), “beautiful but mediocre” (think-tank head Oliver Hartwich), caught in “the Great Centrist Drift” (political writer Danyl Mclauchlan), or, quite simply, “broken” (all commentators everywhere). Welcome to New Zealand in late 2023, political mood: depressed.
It’s not just the commentators: most Kiwis think the country is on the wrong track. Even centre-right voters seem unenthused by a new government that – in essence – won power as the lesser of two evils. On the left, meanwhile, the coolest or most credible political stance has long been one of despair. Savvy-seeming people compete for the most extreme take: inequality “skyrocketing”, the planet “on fire”, the whole situation “f**ked”.
There are many reasons not to be cheerful, especially where the climate is concerned. Yet this attitude can blind us to all the things that are getting better. And when we fail to celebrate our wins, that defective self-knowledge diminishes our sense of our own capacity, shrinks our horizons, inspires defeatism.
Let us consider, then, what might be termed the Upturn: the trends already heading in the right direction, or about to do so.
Greenhouse gas emissions
New Zealand’s carbon emissions are, at long last, falling. We should have celebrated this news, shouted it from the rooftops. Yet it was received with no fanfare – barely even a solitary bugle. So it bears repeating: New Zealand’s carbon emissions are falling.
This is due in part to forces outside our control – full hydro lakes and high petrol prices spring to mind – but also to policies like the clean car discount and the rising carbon price in the Emissions Trading Scheme, as well as renewables generating 90% of electricity for the first time in four decades. The Zero Carbon Act has, more broadly, reframed the debate from “should we do anything about climate change?” to “what should we do about climate change”?
In short, Jacinda Ardern, James Shaw and others have, under pressure from activists, bent the curve. New Zealand has finally begun reducing its contribution to the planet’s over-heating.
Emissions, of course, are still not falling fast enough, farmers seem determined never to pay for their carbon pollution – and any progress could reverse under National. But the EV market, which Labour invigorated, may now have enough momentum to keep growing even without the clean car discount; renewable energy schemes will keep coming online; and the public demand for National to “do something” may be just about sufficient. There is, at least, a base on which campaigners can build.
Next to climate change, economic inequality is one of New Zealand’s gravest challenges. Again, the mood is sombre: just look at the foodbank queues. But while there is undeniable hardship, especially among the very poorest, over the last decade the rates of deprivation have on some measures halved. This is one of the great unacknowledged success stories of New Zealand life, the result of a growing economy and increased employment (under National) and all of the above plus sweeping benefit increases (under Labour).
Will these achievements continue? Again, possibly not, given the new government’s intention to increase benefits much more slowly than the last one did. But Christopher Luxon is rhetorically committed to meeting 2028 targets that would require us to halve child poverty again, reducing it to one of the lowest levels in the world. There is bipartisan support for the goal – and something against which to hold National accountable.
The election saw a distasteful rise in anti-Māori rhetoric. But does that reflect a large or permanent tide of hatred? Not necessarily. Two points of data from the New Zealand Election Survey, taken in 2002 and 2020, show that not only is each age cohort becoming more comfortable with the Treaty of Waitangi’s prominence over time, every new cohort starts from a more accepting position than the previous one. Bigotry and an anti-Māori backlash are undeniably present, in the form of Julian Batchelor and others. But such sentiments may not rest on a solid foundation: in the long run, New Zealand appears to be getting less racist.
In the last decade, smoking rates have halved for nearly every ethnicity: a stunning endorsement of health campaigners’ successes. On the other hand, Māori and Pacific Peoples’ rates remain far higher than those of Pākehā. The rise in vaping, especially among young people, is also troubling. But there is, overall, progress on which the likely new health minister, Shane Reti, can build – and he’s signalled he won’t junk everything in the last government’s plan for a “smoke-free generation”.
Short-term problems are also solvable. At times in the last 12 months ram raids have felt like a never-ending nightmare, the result of a deeply ingrained dysfunction with no apparent fix. But in fact the raids are already well down, thanks in part to “circuit breaker” programmes that give perpetrators same-day, wrap-around social support and boast an 80% success rate in preventing re-offending. It turns out the government can tackle complex issues. It could even learn a lesson here and make these circuit breakers – and programmes like Kotahi te Whakaaro – part of standard practice.
Nor is progress in the criminal justice system limited to the short term. The over-representation of Māori in prisons has long been a stain on the nation’s conscience, and is far from being resolved. But previously unpublished figures, compiled by the statistician Len Cook, show that a young Māori man’s chances of being sentenced to prison have fallen to their lowest level since WWII. This is thanks in part to the gradual turn towards a less punitive system, spurred by the advocacy of reformers like Moana Jackson, and the abolition of things like borstals and boys’ homes, notably cruel forms of detention that once loomed large in the lives of young Māori men.
Another issue that bedevilled the last government may finally be turning a corner. Educational attendance plummeted in Covid’s aftermath, as schooling patterns were disrupted and the cost-of-living crisis forced young people into work. Last year, regular student attendance – defined by the Ministry of Education as students being at school at least 90% of the time – fell to just 39.8% in term two, the period when children are most absent due to winter illness.
In term two this year, the rate was 47% – hardly great, but an improvement nonetheless. And the definition of “regular” is stringent: any child who misses six days with a cold fails to make the cut. Including those kids, the attendance rate is three-quarters: again, nowhere near good enough, but less disastrous than sometimes suggested. And National’s intense focus on this issue will, presumably, help get the figures back to something acceptable.
The families forced by the housing crisis into government-funded motels have seemed a permanent fixture in the nation’s polyvalent woes. But as more social housing has come on stream – some 13,000 places were built or bought under Labour – the numbers have begun to drop. From a peak of 4,911 families in emergency accommodation in December 2021, the tally has fallen to 3,396 in August this year. That is still 3,396 too many – but a reduction of 1,515, or nearly one-third.
Families in emergency accommodation
Public transport use
The Covid lockdowns piled woe onto public transport systems already seen by some as terminally inadequate. But as the Auckland and Wellington figures demonstrate, patronage is returning to pre-lockdown peaks, and for some modes of transport – the capital’s buses, for instance – has even exceeded its 2020 levels. Both regions have ambitious plans to boost patronage still further. How well that survives the new government’s pro-car orientation remains to be seen. Still: public transport, like nature, seems to be healing itself.
What does this data tell us? Not that all is well. Another story could easily be compiled from graphs that point the other way: school results slipping, vaccination rates declining, suicides remaining stubbornly high. Nor has progress, such as it is, occurred at a speed commensurate with the challenges we confront. In some cases the green shoots, barely above the surface, are tentative, tender, easily harmed.
But if – to use a different metaphor – so many problems have turned, or are turning, a corner, others can too. And these are not minor, over-hyped instances of progress: carbon emissions, child poverty and smoking rates are among the most important issues we face. Other positive trends could also be cited: the predator-free-inspired revival of birdlife, for instance, or the thousands of new nurses recruited to ease the health crisis. The Upturn is far from comprehensive, but it is real.
Nor has social and environmental progress come about through chance or natural forces. It has been won by those who have agitated, argued and fought for a better world. Activists, business leaders, politicians and public servants have shifted the terms of debate, and progress has followed, though more hesitantly and erratically than is ideal. Much good has been achieved in the last decade, across multiple governments. Much more may lie ahead.