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Wellington Club

Issue date: 
Monday, 14 July 1997
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Thank you for the honour you do me tonight. I have always valued my membership of the Club, and I was surprised to find, when I checked the record, that I have been a member for over a quarter of a century - an unkind way of saying 25 years. I began my membership very diffidently, very timidly in fact, and little did I, or anyone else I'm sure, imagine that I would qualify as an honorary member, and be invited to speak on one of these grand annual occasions.

One of the great Judges of the last century, who had quickly learnt, as I suppose we all do, that there are no free lunches, or dinners, often began his post-prandial penance with a biblical reference which was probably often lost on his legal audiences, but which I am sure will not be here. He used to say that Daniel in the lion's den must have drawn some comfort from the knowledge that when the dreadful feast was done, it would not be he who was called on to give thanks.

Of course, that's an extreme position to take, and one that I certainly eschew tonight. Nonetheless being left, as I was, to choose my own topic I always find a challenge. I decided not to resort to the old stand-by and talk about the role of the Governor-General, partly because I suspected that there might be some here who know more about that topic than I do. And also because I am reluctant to let it be generally known that I do not possess the constitutional omnipotence my numerous correspondents believe I possess: and which at times I wish I did possess.

Instead, I thought I would share with you some of my experiences and some reflections upon the contrasts in New Zealand society that those experiences have highlighted. There is nothing particularly novel about what I'm going to say: and I hope I won't appear to be moralising overmuch. But what prompts me is that I have come from a job where I saw so much of the negative - worse than that, the depressing - side of life in New Zealand; and of course, because of the news media's obsession with the sensational and the tawdry, we all read and hear so much of that side too. I am now in a job where I see so much that is positive - more than that, that is exciting - about our country. And I wonder a lot about the reasons for the contrasts, and what we can do to reduce them. I'm not being so presumptuous as to proffer many solutions either. In my former, judicial, life I was put off doing that by the story of an English Judge, who having completed hearing a case on a Friday said he would deliver judgment on the Monday. He took the papers down to his country house for the weekend, etc ...

Not very long ago, we prided ourselves on being a pretty egalitarian society. Yes, there were a few millionaires and a few family fortunes, but not many. Well paid work was fairly easy to come by, and most of us felt that we were all within striking distance of attaining those material manifestations of the New Zealand Dream: a house, a car, appliances, roasts on Sundays, toys for the children, even toys for ourselves.

No doubt some of our memories about how equal we all were, are rather too self-congratulatory. Be that as it may, we can no longer claim to be an egalitarian society. The gap between the haves and the have nots has become very much wider.

Now and again, I go to some quite glittering occasions. And of course, tonight is one such: and I'm certainly not averse to glittering occasions. They have their place, definitely. They are more likely to be further north than here, in the vicinity of a harbour where the number and costliness of yachts and launches berthed at the growing number of marinas is quite amazing. Yet in that same city there are people living in caravans: many, many families living in overcrowded and inadequate accommodation, children going to school unfed, the streets dreary and dirty and every available wall - and many apparently unavailable ones - covered with graffiti.

Auckland is by no means alone in this, but it is there that the contrast is most marked. It's not quite so obvious here in Wellington. But ask those in the welfare organisations in this district. They will tell you their resources are stretched almost to breaking point.

From time to time, there are somewhat sterile arguments as to whether we have poverty in New Zealand. It's a matter of definition of course, and as Humpty Dumpty observed, when "I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean ... " If we want it to mean an inability to subsist, of course we have no poverty. Social Welfare sees to that. But if we mean poverty in a relative sense, meaning an inability to have access to the normal basic activities of society, then we certainly have it. There are many who cannot afford enough good food for their families, or who have too little left after paying rent, to enable themselves or their children to have what most of us would agree every New Zealander should have, and to participate to any extent at all in what life in New Zealand should offer them.

I went to see Father Des Britten at the City Mission the other day. The range of needs they are trying to meet is quite vast: housing the elderly, providing food parcels, counselling families, talking to schools about drug and alcohol abuse, counselling youngsters with addictions, educating and training school dropouts or rejects, taking meals to the housebound, running the night shelter for the homeless, handling funds for the inadequate, providing budgeting assistance, or drop-in centres for the lonely and recreation facilities for the young, organising sports teams - in short, meeting the physical and social and financial needs of large numbers of the elderly, of children from dysfunctional families, of psychiatric patients unable to cope in the community, and of many more of life's unfortunates.

The consequences of all this deprivation are far reaching. They affect us all. A recent number of Time magazine quotes the director of London's Institute for Public Policy Research, in the context of an argument for fiscal measures to retrain those rendered jobless by economic changes, making the very pertinent observation: "There's nothing more expensive in the long run than building up an underclass." We in New Zealand are experiencing the truth of that.

I sit on a number of University scholarship committees, I've hosted the young achievers award and the top scholars awards and I have visited a number of schools, ranging from Kings College to the Catlins Area School and little Te Horo school. I have been to the secondary schools' chamber music competition, the Mobil Song Quest, the secondary schools' debating contests, the Youth Skills Olympics for young tradespeople, and many other events: I am constantly inspired by the fine young people I meet. There is a commitment to excellence, a dedication to achievement, that means that these youngsters can hold their own anywhere in the world. The same goes for our servicemen and women. I have visited the Air Force bases, the Naval base, and most of the Army bases. The bearing, the morale, of our servicemen and women are outstanding.

And yet we have one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world. Street kids and glue sniffers have become part of the urban scene. More and more young people, even children, are involved in serious crime. Some schools are becoming unmanageable. Many young people, Maori in particular, have a sense of insecurity, of alienation, a feeling that they do not belong, and so they are ready conscripts for the gangs, where they find some sort of security and purpose.

I present many awards; to scouts and guides, to the Girls and Boys Brigades, the St John Ambulance and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. I find a sense of service, of community responsibility, a desire to exercise leadership, that is enormously heartening. But their numbers are decreasing because there are not enough leaders. People no longer have the time or perhaps they have different priorities.

There are many other organisations trying to help what are, clinically, called "youth at risk" - perhaps too many - but their resources of money and man power are limited too. At the same time, we read in one of our monthly glossies that teenagers from well-to-do families are taking to substance abuse simply because they cannot think of anything better, more constructive, or self-fulfilling to do. This, in a country that has bush and mountains and sea and tremendous recreational facilities at everyone's doorstep.

I am of course patron of many organisations, and I visit many homes and hospitals and programmes and facilities operated by charitable organisations, ranging from The City Mission and the Downtown Ministry here in Wellington, to a small business at Porirua providing employment to former psychiatric patients. There is a host of wonderful people out there, giving selfless service and loving care, much of it unnoticed and unsung. But these organisations are all short of money, some critically so. And this despite the fact that the government has given more money to the taxpayer, so that the taxpayer can accept responsibility for his or her own community. It's not happening - although we are spending tens of millions on gambling; even if, as I think, that $6 billion annual figure we were given the other day overstates it.

There's no shortage of money to pay our sports people, of course. Here, we are often told, are the great role models for the young. And so of course they can and should be. But they can be, only, to a very limited extent: the best role models are parents and teachers. Yet more and more boys are growing up deprived of that best of all influences - the proportion of children without a father in the home is quite frightening. And there are fewer and fewer male teachers in the primary schools. So where are the role models, for we all must have them? They are on the television screen, in the street, in the gang. There, aggression is the model, violence the appropriate reaction to any slight or frustration.

I recently talked with Laurie O'Reilly, the Commissioner for Children, who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The day before, in conjunction with the Save the Children Fund, he had launched a programme called "Fathers who Care : Partners in Parenting." He was hoping that the Budget would give his office the additional funding he believed the project needed. He didn't get it. Yet internationally, it is recognised that the key to many social problems is the proper role of men within the family. The urgent need for a great deal of education and training in this area in New Zealand is very obvious. It seems though that there are higher priorities.

In the end, of course, the priorities are set by the community. And there are many competing priorities. We who are growing older must surely beware lest the care of the ageing, who have a strong political voice, takes unfair precedence over the care of the young, who have no political clout.

I have visited a number of marae, most memorably Turangawaewae, the Ngaruawahia home of the Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu. I have always been received with great warmth by very fine people, both old and young. There is a longing for unity based on recognition of the continuing consequences of past wrongs, and an acceptance of Maori culture as part of the heritage of all New Zealanders. Maori people are taking quite remarkable initiatives in the areas of health and education. At the recent investiture of Sir Robert Mahuta at Turangawaewae, I presented post-graduate scholarships of very substantial value to some 20 young people, and later that day other tertiary scholarships were awarded to several dozen others. Yet there are the radicals who do nothing but harm to their own cause, there are the lost young on the city streets, and there are the Pakeha who fail or refuse to acknowledge the continuing obligations of Treaty partnership.

These are some of the contrasts of which I have become increasingly aware these past 15 months. Many of them are interrelated. Many of them are common to most western societies. In a way, they are all symptoms of poverty, some of which I suppose has always been with us, some of which has recently come - poverty not only in relative economic terms, but poverty too in our sense of values.

There are many reasons for the shift in economic equality, and I don't want to dwell on them tonight. But I am sure that much of it is due to our lack of preparedness for the technological age that has come upon us. Skills have become essential, and the need for our once large unskilled workforce is rapidly diminishing. Tragically, there are many, many unskilled people out there, and we are still producing them, particularly among our urban Maori and Pacific island communities. In the December 1996 quarter, youth unemployment (people between 15 and 24 years of age) accounted for nearly 40% of total unemployment. For 15 to 19 year olds, the unemployment rate is almost 3 times higher than the average overall rate. There are no specific figures for Maori and Pacific Islanders, except that general unemployment rates among Maori are 3 times higher than among Pakeha.

Another reason for the shift in equality is, I suggest, the huge number of solo mothers on a welfare benefit. Our rate of non-nuptial births in 1995 was almost 42%. As at 30 June 1996, there were over 104,000 sole parents on the DPB. Many of course cope wonderfully well. But for the majority, the risk is that their children - and often there are many of them - will end up like their parents: poorly educated and therefore, often, unemployable. These women and their children are perhaps a main component of our economic underclass.

I would like to suggest that the reluctance of many educators to associate moral values with sexual instruction is partly responsible for this state of affairs. This reluctance is itself a manifestation of a more general and, I think, quite disastrous philosophy; that I believe has impoverished us as much as have changes in economic circumstances. To put a label on it, it's the philosophy of moral relativism and privatised morality. What is good and right is a matter of private taste and individual opinion only. Therefore, we cannot be judgmental. We cannot impose on others our own concepts of what is right and what is wrong. Listen to this rather grotesque but true account:

At a New Jersey high school, a female student found $1000 in a purse and turned it in. The next day, a guidance counsellor led a discussion of the incident with a group of students. The counsellor asked them what they thought of the girl's action. They concluded that the girl had been foolish to turn in the money. The students then asked the counsellor what he thought of the girl's action. He told them that he believed the girl had done the right thing, but added that "he would not try to force his values on them" He later commented "If I come from the position of what is right and what is wrong, then I am not their counsellor."

That may be an extreme example, but I think it's a valid one nonetheless. It is true, is it not, that in the heady days of the mid-1980s, we produced the Me Generation, rights without responsibilities, assertive self fulfilment, instant gratification - the Instant Kiwi complex. The sense of community upon which so much of New Zealand society was built has become pretty thin; the acceptance that we have duties to others, an obligation to help others in need, to contribute time and resources to the greater good.

I believe that much of the answer to the concerns we have about our society today lies not in providing more money, but in teaching and insisting on, better values. We must, as a society, insist that there are certain values - virtues is a more forceful word - that are essential for community well-being. These are values which are lasting because they are intimately linked with what it is to be a true person, and a worthwhile citizen: virtues such as truth, justice, respect, courage, willingness to work, self-discipline, service to others, compassion. These are, and have to be seen to be, good whether they suit our interests or not, true whether we [agree willingly] or not, values we must serve and that do not serve us. They are virtues that must be taught, but above all, that must be practised. Too often, elevating talk is belied by actions, which always speak louder than words.

(Like the friends of a very eminent professor of philosophy at Cambridge, Professor Wittgenstein, who was waiting on the railway station for the London train to come in. He was so engrossed in conversation with two of his friends that none of them noticed that the train had come in, until it began to move away again. They made a dash for it, and the professor's colleagues managed to jump on, but he was too slow and was left behind. A station person saw him standing on the platform looking rather disconsolate, and went to console him. "Don't worry, professor, there's another train in an hour." "I'm not worried for myself, but for my colleagues. They came to see me off.")

That story does not really advance the argument, but it's a happier note to end on. For after all, this really is a wonderful country, and New Zealanders are tremendous people. We have great talents, and are good at so many things. We have the capacity to do even better, and given some more self-appraisal and some more goodwill, I am confident we will.

Thank you for bearing with me. I hope, and I am sure you do too, that I do not become any more sententious in the next 3 years.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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