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Speech

Auckland Mayoral Prayer Breakfast

Issue date: 
Friday, 6 November 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

This is the second Auckland Mayoral Prayer Breakfast I have had the pleasure of attending, and the fifth I think around the country. Your approach is a little different from that in Wellington and Lower Hutt, where I have also been, because here you focus on leadership, most especially civic leadership, but acknowledging that that cannot be isolated from leadership at national level; and acknowledging too that neither can exist unless individuals exercise their own responsibilities of citizenship, of giving time and talents and resources, to the common good.

It is easy to think of leadership as something exercised by a few people of particular ability, but the truth is that we all have the capacity for leadership, and indeed we all act as leaders from time to time, perhaps not in conspicuous ways, perhaps not even consciously, but nonetheless in ways that make he set out he did not know where he was going, when he arrived he didn't know where he was, and when he got back he didn't know where he had been. I suppose he must have been a very proficient sailor to have achieved what he did, but by that particular description he was an utter failure as a leader, because I am sure that effective leaders are people who know where they and those they are responsible for are, who know where they want them all to get to, and who are able to carry those others along so that they all do get there.

Well, where are we? - as a nation, as a city or group of cities, as communities and as individuals? It seems to me that we are on the edge of a divide, some on one side, some on the other. You remember the old song "Loch Lomond" - "You take the high road and I'll take the low road and I'll be in Scotland afore ye." Except that these days, perhaps, it might have to read: I'll take the high road and you can have the low road and if either of us actually reaches Scotland, it'll be me rather than you, because I'll be doing all I can to make sure I get there first.

We've seen a bit much of that "I'll make sure I get there first" thinking in recent times. And because of it - partly because of it, perhaps because of other things too - there has grown this divide right down the middle of this society of ours. It's always been there to some extent, there have always been some on the high road and some on the low road, but the numbers on the low road have been growing, and the gap between the two has been widening.

It shows itself in so many ways. Take a walk around Remuera and then around Otara. Look at the yachts and the launches in the marinas, and then go to Mangere and ask how many of the kids get holidays at the beach.

Here in Auckland you have some of the country's finest schools, well endowed, strongly supported by parents and past pupils, turning out splendid young people, from good stable homes, confident about their future. Yet there are the many other schools struggling to cope with parental indifference, with children who come to school hungry or dirty or abused, with no motive to learn, no apparent future other than the cycle of dependency into which they were born. There are opulent retirement villages, and yet there are old people frightened to turn on the heater in winter. There are private hospitals and health insurance schemes, and yet there are children with untreated glue ear and illnesses that should have been diagnosed years ago if only someone had taken them to the doctor.

One of the big issues for the nation today is superannuation; or to be more specific, whether increases should be indexed to the average wage or to the consumer price index, the cost of living. The debate about this raises some interesting questions - moral questions, not political questions, I hasten to say, which I would like to come back to.

No, despite the headlines I don't believe that superannuation is the major issue facing New Zealand today. I don't want to minimise for a moment the importance of a secure retirement, and difficulties some elderly folk face. But I believe that the most pressing issue for us is the wellbeing of our young people. They are our tomorrow. Our nation's future depends on them. The fulfillment of our expectations, our dreams, lies in their hands. Yet they have no political voice, they hold no meetings or marches, they form no pressure groups. They are a truly voiceless majority. Yet many of them are failing to thrive. The breakdown of family life, of the whanau, the shedding of individual, communal and community responsibility, of core values like integrity and compassion and moderation, all these have left a frightening number of children and young people "at risk."

I sometimes think that a label like that - "at risk" - is a convenient way of depersonalising a problem, so that it becomes less pressing. But this label, "at risk," is starkly, literally, accurate: at risk of being abused, of being emotionally, even physically scarred; at risk of dropping out of school, of becoming pregnant, of living on the streets; at risk of being hooked on drugs or other substances; at risk of being caught up in gangs, in crime, of being unemployable, of having no ambition, no vision, no hope; at risk of handing down hopelessness to the next generation; at risk of suicide.

It is my understanding, from talking to people who work in this area, that this is a bigger problem than we realise, than we care to admit. And much of it comes back to families, or the lack of them, and to leadership in families, especially leadership by fathers, or the lack of it. The number of children growing up without their fathers, and the role models they should provide, the leadership they can give, is quite frightening. It's easy to distort the picture and overstate the effects. It's true nonetheless that fatherless families are more likely to give rise to the risks I have just listed. Of course, it can happen in even the most complete of families, and there are many, many fatherless families where none of them occurs. That's an important point to make, because I know that some mothers, struggling on their own, with great success, see this emphasis on fathering as a criticism of them - which, of course, it most definitely is not.

But it is also true that father and mother have complementary, usually distinct, roles within the family. Each offers a different kind of emotional support, a different view of the world, a different way of doing and thinking and feeling, a different role model to follow. The combination of the two is the best assurance of a healthy happy family life, and most importantly, of well-adjusted children ready to play their own constructive part in society and in their own families.

This is why, somehow, we must teach greater sexual and financial responsibility, why we must do all we can to reduce the pressure on families, to help couples resolve their differences and stay together if they possibly can. It is why we must somehow reduce the demands of work and financial necessity so that fathers have the time and energy for a fulfilling family life: because a fatherless family is not just one where father lives elsewhere; it is equally one where father lives in the house but has no time or inclination to make it a home.

And we must affirm over and over again what a privilege fatherhood is, and what a joy it can be. But that comes only through a commitment, not just of resources, but of time: time to listen and time to share; and a commitment to loving, too, a love demonstrated in tangible, visible affection. Let us in our continuing prayers, ask for the words and the wisdom to say and do and give these things; so that our young may have this kind of leadership.

One of the truly encouraging developments in New Zealand at the moment, is that there are people - I'm sure there are many here this morning - hundreds, if not thousands, of New Zealanders who devote themselves to helping broken or dysfunctional families; to mending or preventing the damage that can be done in those families; New Zealanders who show not just in words, but in action, those qualities of goodness, truth, honesty and love that are so essential to family life, and to the life of the nation.

I would like to think that in our continuing prayers, we will remember these people, as well as those for whom they labour so wonderfully. For their leadership is vital to us.

Governments, mayors, councils, cannot legislate for these things, they cannot direct people to be good or responsible or compassionate. Their leadership role is one of influence, by affirming the individual and community values that are essential to us. They can show the way. Their role is also one of shaping policies and providing resources that encourage and support, and that seek to maintain the wellbeing of all. But they are always, and always will be, faced with a dilemma: how best to allocate limited resources.

I began by talking about the divide between those with plenty and those without enough. And I mentioned some moral questions that the debate about superannuation raises. It requires no great brain to realise that there is a huge gulf between the demands we make of the state and the ability of the state to meet them. To satisfy all together everything we ask of our health and education and superannuation and social welfare systems, to say nothing of defence and conservation and transport - and I have no brief from the Treasurer or any of the mayors - to satisfy all these expectations would, I am sure, require an economic base many, many times in excess of our little nation's economy. We have, after all, a pretty small, and at times pretty fragile, economy.

And so there are some difficult questions that must be answered; and difficult choices to be made. For example: where do we set the boundary between legitimate personal interest and the common welfare? And how much should we come to the aid of others? And to what extent should we do so as individuals, or as members of a particular community or group, or should it be left as the state's responsibility?

Questions like these, of course, lead to more specific ones: for example, how should we be dividing limited resources between the needs of the old and the needs of the young? To what extent should public resources be used to benefit those who have no urgent need of them, or perhaps no need of them at all? In other words, to the extent that social justice can only be achieved through sacrifice, or through benefits foregone, or by way of wealth transferred, how much sacrifice and by whom? Clearly, these are all questions that do not permit yes-or-no, right-or-wrong answers. Truly thoughtful answers might even be rather unexpected ones.

Let me tell you a story. It's a Jewish story, about a judge who was famed for both his wisdom and his compassion. There was brought before him a poor man, with many children, who had had to borrow a large sum from a wealthy man and who had defaulted in repaying it. Everyone thought that the judge would excuse the poor man, because he could not afford to pay, and the wealthy man did not need the money. To general consternation, the judge ordered the poor man to repay his debt. Everyone murmured against him. But the judge explained that if he had not done that, people would be reluctant to lend, and the poor would suffer and commerce and contract would become uncertain, and that would be good for no one. Then said the judge, I am going to send an officer among you, so that you who believe it is unjust for the poor man to have to pay, may do justice by yourselves paying the poor man's debt.

The final choices must be made by our leaders, and it is right that we should pray for them the wisdom, and the courage, to make them. But let's remember that in making those choices, they will be very much guided by us, the New Zealanders whose servants they are. And so we should pray for ourselves, that we might have not only convictions, but also the courage of our convictions, and that we might take a role ourselves, a role of leadership, individual leadership, in the shaping of opinion and in the formulation of policy.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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