New Zealand democracy at work! Today the politically powerful, the corporate and the wealthy dominate our society, economy and government. I believe that the charter school debate has become a test case for our democratic rights.
Over the past weeks thousands of teachers, pupils and their parents, across the country have taken to protest marches against Novopay, charter schools, national standards and other education issues. Separate marches were held in several towns and cities around New Zealand, including Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Invercargill. The message coming across load and clear is that the teachers and parents of New Zealand are not happy with the National Government’s agenda in relation to education. But instead of the cries being heeded what we actually see emerging is a new reality – and this new reality is being forced upon us. A reality being shaped by the ‘powers that be’ who seemingly care little for the common good and the success of New Zealand and its citizens. Those currently making the rules are often the ones breaking those same rules and I think it is fair to say that they have probably never been less representative of the wishes of the people of our Nation than at any other time in our short history. Their arrogance and indifference is shown clearly through their abuse of power- their policies clearly driven toward attaining power and money and in the process depriving other socioeconomic groups of equal opportunity. I find myself deeply saddened and angered by that which I experience in New Zealand today.
The truth is that in these days even our universities are rarely, if ever bastions of independent thinking, social scholarship and activism. Instead they tend to rely upon either government hand-outs or the favour of corporations and the wealthy for funding. Surely the preservation of equality is worthy of resisting the forces that would attempt to diminish or destroy it. There can be no more worthy cause for our traditional institutions and for all of us who care deeply about democracy and the way of life it represents? These deliberate and planned educational changes will have a disastrous impact on us all.
It is hard not to interpret National Government’s insistence on this policy that people don’t want – our political, business and academic elites waging subtle subversion on New Zealanders. The National Party has become viciously partisan, and I would go so far as to say contemptuous of its constituents and the responsibilities of their elected MPs to their electorates. Their one-eyed focus is almost to the point of being seen as a force which is committed to a world view that sees constituents as impediments to trade and commerce.
In these times, almost every night I see reported on the ‘news’ erosion of individual rights and individual liberties together with ever broader attempts by politicians and big business to define what New Zealand is to become. Based on their visible actions, one could reasonably conclude that elected politicians and corporate leaders are seemingly determined to deny New Zealanders the same economic and educational opportunities that previous New Zealand generations enjoyed.
What I am experiencing is a small group of people trying to control a national agenda, define issues in their own narrow terms and obfuscate their vested interests and motives. The charter/partnership issue is a case in point. It would seem that this small group demand that they alone will determine our nation’s future and are dismissive of anyone who would have the temerity to raise his or her voice. I congratulate Peter Dunn (the United Future’s political party leader) for reassessing his position within this debate. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10878311 and http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/8566770/Dunne-says-no-to-charter-schools. He said “I had real misgivings about charter schools, but I said I would take a firm stand after the select committee had heard the evidence and I’d had a chance to see what was coming forward….On the basis of what I’ve seen and heard over the past months, my initial misgivings have been confirmed.”
For the last 150 years New Zealand has had a tradition of values and a belief that every citizen is an important and integral part of the greater good. But now we see a society descending into an increasingly divided society – one of the haves and have nots, educated and uneducated, rich and poor. The introduction of charter schools will only hasten to divide that gap even more.
If New Zealanders are not acknowledged in this process which was initiated without any mandate from the people, then we can safely say that as a population we have lost our hold of not only education but more fundamentally, of our democratic process. I feel that in recent times and more particularly under this current National Government, the New Zealand ‘conservative state’ is in deep decay. As a democracy we have a social contract of the conservative state and slowly, large chunks are being taken from it. The chunks that are being taken are called ‘Freedom’.
It is hard to see how this National Government, that survives by only one seat in Parliament, can continue to force decisions upon a population that clearly does not want them. When our political system and our education system are no longer for the people, by the people, then we indeed have a major problem.
This Government has no justification for the institution of charter schools. Is education really an area to be run by private ‘market forces; – the same market forces which produced such division and suffering in Christchurch? Are they seriously trying to use a business model in our schooling system? – schools are not businesses. To the on-looker this appears nothing short of experimentation by the National Government. Spending millions on making the changes which it cannot prove will make the educational system better – and which foreign experience tells us will make it worse – seems at most a calculated and cynical proposal. Resources should be used to improve that which already exists. It’s time to have a conversation about how we can improve, develop and strengthen our current educational model – not to disband it and replace it with an untested and untried alternative.
For those of us living in earthquake torn Christchurch, charter schools/partnership schools – call them what you want- look very suspiciously like disaster capitalism in progress – Christchurch first and the rest of the country to follow – again I reiterate that it is our democracy at stake not just our educational system. There simply isn’t a public mandate to pursue a charter school policy.
There is also the very serious issue of the “unconstitutional nature” of making charter schools exempt from public scrutiny. Dame Beverley Wakem (the Chief Ombudsman) warned that proposals to make charter schools exempt from the Official Information Act and Ombudsman Act would detract from public confidence, and remove the fundamental right for an independent review mechanism. Philip Harding, the New Zealand Principals’ Federation president said that state-funded charter schools were unlikely to save taxpayers money, and have the “potential to harm children’s learning and their futures”.
And yet the National Government persists. In my opinion we are not only on the verge of losing our government for the people by the people but also of idly standing by while the New Zealand dream becomes a nightmare for us all. In our apathy we are allowing governments to covertly and overtly subvert the principles of free markets and a democratic society and to perpetuate the untruth that our economic system is of more importance than our political and education systems. How long are we going to suffer in silence? As we continue to suppress our feelings about our marginalized role in society, many have lost their voices in the process. Big Government and Big Business treasure our silence because that’s the perfect condition which enables them to claim New Zealand for their own.
The breakdown in the public education system will mean that the meritocracy in our society will be compromised – without a good strong publicly funded school system in place that serves everyone regardless of where they sit on the economic spectrum – a class system will evolve and become firmly entrenched. A good strong educational system that is focused on developing well rounded and grounded, independently minded individuals who are able to voice their concerns and add valuable input into our future society should be the paramount focus of any policy regarding education. I think it’s true to say that for many New Zealanders the dream of a better life for their children has become the desperate hope that their children won’t be forced into a lower education, lower standard of living and a lower quality of life.
Political New Zealand today requires great courage to constrain its’ self-interest and commit to the good of the Nation. After all we need to be Future Proofing for a sustainable, participatory, and truly democratic society but instead we at risk of losing it.