Ok, so if my 2016 resolution is to removing the presence of Great Britain on our constitutional flag, and as of today that resolve is intact, then I must prepare my mind for the logical extension of removing the Royal Family of Great Britain as the monarch of New Zealand. That done, we either replace the Windsor family with a New Zealand-based monarch or we establish a republic. In days of yore that would have meant war. But not today; I am pretty certain that the Queen has given our Prime Minister the royal nod over a picnic lunch that the royal we would be very comfortable with not having us hanging around her apron strings any longer.
Which actually brings me to my holiday read which was a very good book called “Shantaram”. It is a novel based on the experiences of Australian author and former criminal, Gregory Roberts, when he was living in India. He had escaped from Melbourne prison and made his way, via New Zealand, to the streets of Bombay. Initially he was repulsed by the slums of Bombay but eventually, to avoid the authorities, he had no option but to live in one. And even that option was a highly prized one for the street people in Bombay. A family missed out when he was allotted a shack. He came to genuinely love the people and the lifestyle of the slums; there was a system of community support and justice that put the outside world to shame. Domestic violence, religious fights, natural disasters of fire and monsoon floods were all dealt with and resolved communally. Their slum leader was appointed out of respect. He had no elected title of mayor, governor or senator nor inherited title of prince, duke or lord, but his wisdom ruled the 25,000 living in that one slum. His decisions were not questioned. His justice was accepted without challenge. And even though Roberts eventually made his way from the slums to a luxury apartment, courtesy of his services to a local crime boss, his heart and soul remained with the people of the slum.
That is not just the wishful imagination of a novel writer, even based on his own experience. I recalled a very serious documentary on television some years ago researching the difference between the slums of India and the ghettos in the West. The documentary concluded that the attitudes to life between the two groups could not have been more polar. The slum dwellers in India were a happy community which worked co-operatively, self-regulated and self-resourced. I would not be so naive as to suggest that, because it is communal, there is no crime. There will be thieves, but the crime of thievery depends entirely on who writes the laws. How much taxation and spending of taxation by the politicians and bureaucrats is thievery in fact if not in legal name. The 40,000 person bureau bash in the December Paris Climate change summit a case in point. There was a philosophical reference in the book about doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Some thievery will fall into that category.
On the other side of the world, those observed in the far more civilised, high rise ‘housing estate’ ghettos in the West lived a desperate and miserable existence. The residents relied on the faceless state for their welfare income that purchased the basics in life and they, in fact, prey on one another. The documentary concluded that the difference was that in the West the under-privileged were placed in high-rise apartments, physically separating each family, whereas the slums in India were on a single level and families lived and interacted very intimately. I would have thought the reverse to be true; I would have thought that a sense of privacy would make people happier than being so exposed, but in fact it would seem that the exact opposite is the reality.
Living in little boxes all stacked on top of each other seems to result in disconnection, loneliness and despair. Being dependent on social welfare creates a sense of worthlessness. Communal living, even in a slum, brings connection, co-operation and actually happiness. Living in a shack alongside and connecting to thousands of other shacks appears, according to both the TV documentary and to Gregory Roberts, the best out of people. The high-rise ghettos are the solution of the big, out of touch bureaucracies; the Indian slums are organic, unofficial community solutions to housing needs.
So, back to the new New Zealand. When we revise our constitution, our fundamental basis for organising and running our country, should we review the whole concept? As a modern western society, are we getting too bureaucratic? Bureaucracy has a natural desire to grow bigger. Bigger is better they claim; more efficiency and greater scales of economics. High rise housing projects need big bureaucracies to create them and consequently bigger bureaucracies to create greater civilisations. Well that is the bureaucrats’ viewpoint. The counter argument is that the bigger the bureaucracy the further they are removed from the community. Their primary objective then becomes the growth of the bureaucracy rather than the well being of the community outside their insular universe. They can even operate almost independently of the democratically elected representatives of the people. Politicians may come into politics with the most noble of intentions but their ability, within any voting cycle, to change the way a bureaucracy moves tends to frustrate their noble intent. Bureaucrats tend to be career people, protected by New Zealand’s largest and most powerful union, the PSA with a membership of 58,000. A daunting prospect for the new member from South Otago.
In the creating of a new New Zealand, a post-colonial New Zealand, beginning with the flag change, one thing that we will know for sure and certain is that the bureaucrats will try to control the process; to achieve their own agenda. And we also know that agenda will be to create a greater bureaucracy. Ask Auckland citizens how their super city has gone? Once a super bureaucracy has been created, it is very hard to dismantle it. So as we face our new New Zealand, we need to be alert to what we want to achieve. And I would suggest teh one thing we do not want is a larger bureaucracy. If a civilisation is judged by the condition of its poorest citizens then the comparison between Chicago and Mumbai is very relevant. Put to us on paper, we would all unanimously say that to build housing for the poor and to pay them a benefit is the civilised and Christian way to approach poverty. But that approach does not take into account the destruction to the soul from the sense of hopelessness of being reliant for basic survival on the decisions a faceless, heartless bureaucracy.
Slum-dwellers have very little, tangibly, but they do have self respect, a sense of community and a sense of self sufficiency. They have a soul. I would never want to see a Mumbai slum in New Zealand, but even less would I want to see the soul-less high-rise ghetto housing projects. A more solid, organised housing construction is no justification for the loss of hope and self-worth through bureaucratic dependency.
When we do decide to change our whole constitutional identity we need to do so in a way that will facilitate the social structure that we want to represent our new nation. Forget the ‘trickle down’ mantra, we need to build the new New Zealand from the ground up. First we need to decide how the underprivileged class, those without capital, without family inheritance, without the resources for a meaningful, career-creating education will survive first, then build up from there. I do not have a solution but I know it must be achieved in a way that enables the self-worth of self-support rather than soul-destroying bureaucratic dependence.
The underprivileged need to be attended to first in the new republic. They could be helped with building materials but then left to build their communities themselves. They may be offered the means to grow, farm or catch food, but then left with the task of turning those means into food on the table. They may be provided with the means to manufacture clothing but left to the communal task of clothing themselves. Provided with the means of gaining an education but leaving them the option of taking the opportunity or not. The new republic could even allow such communities a level of self-governance within their community.
Creating hope and self worth in our most vulnerable communities is all about reducing the size and the intrusion of bureaucracy into their lives. Of creating communities that can take responsibility for their own survival and development and therefore retain and develop their sense of hope and purpose.
For hope and purpose are the essence of humanity. And it is the progress of humanity that should take precedence in the new New Zealand.