In a recent opinion piece in the Christchurch Press by public law specialist Mai Chen she states that “Cantabrians really do have to become knowledgeable about using the public law toolbox to deal with the downstream effects of the earthquakes.” (see http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/perspective/8650208/Education-shakeup-adds-to-quake-stress). This is so true! Her observation is directly related to something else I hold critical in the post earthquake phase of ‘recovery’ and the motivation behind why I keep writing this blog. That ‘something’ can be explained in one word – Citizenship.
Citizenship is not a concept one hears talked about much these days. Citizenship is the quality that we saw lots of immediately after the devastating events of the 22nd of February, 2011. A city and a nation pulled together for a while and we saw and experienced the New Zealand spirit at its brightest. Divisions of class and creed were immediately replaced by a united urge to help each other. We witnessed courage and compassion first hand, an overriding sense of civic duty, and the profound recognition that we were not merely a collection of strangers but in the hour of our greatest need, we bound together by a set of ideals and commitments to a city and country we have a deep connection with.
To maximize our citizenship is to be a fully participating member of society. This entails challenging and engaging with the main pillars of our democracy: i.e. politics, the economy and the law. Our Society belongs to all of us and it is what we make of it, it reflects who we are as a nation. What we put into it creates what we get out of it.
After the Christchurch earthquakes of 2012-2012 it became so apparently clear that so many of our processes are not functioning in a democratic way. Local and national authorities in our society fell short of protecting the people whom they were elected into office to protect. What is taking place in Christchurch after the earthquakes has awoken my sense of citizenship. At the same time I realize that I am but one voice among four million four hundred and sixty seven thousand New Zealanders. But that doesn’t prevent me from raising the issue – as the need for good citizenship should be of concern to us all.
What I have come to notice is that there are not many of us making our views and voices heard – yet the time is nigh and the level of discontent has never been higher. I do believe that society functions at its best when we all join in. That is, when we all bring our energy and judgment to it. In this way we can create an honest and fairer and a more inclusive society. It helps to support a democracy in which people participate and belong. Sometimes I have the feeling that democracy is this country is slipping between our fingers and it gravely concerns me.
New Zealand will not be able to accomplish great things if each of us pursues only our own interests. As a citizen I do understand that New Zealand is not about what can be done for us but about what can be done by us, together, through sometimes very hard and trying times. It is critical that each of us stay involved in this process.
Through our media I am often reminded all too frequently that many of the institutions that give structure to our society also betray our trust with slow creeping changes which seem to ignore the desires of the majority of the population and are simply imposed upon us. In the last months alone decisions about:
- increased surveillance of New Zealand citizens (See http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/8552746/Sweeping-GCSB-changes-announced);
- more assets sales (See http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/6744454/Hundreds-beg-committee-to-stop-sale-of-state-assets);
- the Sky Casino deal done behind closed doors (See http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=10883239);
- and changes to banking deposit guarantee schemes which allows the banks access and control of your personal funds (See http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/money/8446573/Kiwis-could-face-Cyprus-style-trim);
- refusal to discuss or debate changes to MMP (See http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10883610);
- and the introduction of Charter Schools.
All of these things are taking place despite cries from New Zealanders that these are not changes they want.
Clearly our democracy is not working as well as we know it can. It becomes critical to keep citizenship and the obligations that come with it in its fullest sense alive – and not just on Election Day, and not just in times of tragedy, but every day. Democracy is hard work. Since the earthquakes in Canterbury I have come to see that many of those ‘in power’ have forgotten who they represent. As a voter, I exercise my citizenship. It is a lifetime dedication ensuring that our democratic rights are not trivialized or tampered with and currently, I believe New Zealand is in need of many more full-time citizens.
This means that we keep abreast of what’s happening on the political front. We know who’s making decisions on my and your behalf, and what our representatives believe in, and whether or not they deliver on what they said they would. And if I find they have not represented me in the way I want, or do not conduct themselves in the way I expect, if they put special interests, (such as support of increasing corporate power) above that of the people and my own, then I have a duty to let them know that it is not okay.
But participation, your civic duty, is more than just voting. Each of us has the ability to adapt to changing times. If we all participate and persist we hold the keys to a system of self-government, and the toolkit to do great things together – things that we could not possibly do alone e.g. — to educate people with a system of public schools, to hold corporates to account, to provide a basic level of protection for people to ensure that they are not led into abject poverty.
This democracy is our democracy and as participating citizens we understand that it is not about what New Zealand can do for us but about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. If we do not participate then we will be subject to the forces of strong corporate lobby groups and political agendas who will set the rules and policies which do not represent what everyday Cantabrians or New Zealanders want. If not, the well- connected will continue to publicly demand that Government stay out of their businesses — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you and I do not receive. Ask yourself – Why would any genuine government which had the people’s best interests at heart, even respond to such propositioning? But they did a dirty deal with Sky Casinos, just the same.
These times are crucial to our future, we are a people called to do great things e.g. rebuild a City, improve income disparity, constitute a self aware middle class, provide educational opportunity, and reverse the rise of inequality.
Only we can make sure that the democracy you and I live in and the democracy that our children inherit, is as good as we know it can be. But it requires a long term commitment and all our dedication, informed and engaged citizenship. And that citizenship is a harder, higher road to take, but I believe it will lead to a better place. It’s how great Nations are created — together.
~Future Proofing for a sustainable, participatory, democratic society.
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