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Howard's End: Turn Up The Volume On Poverty

Steve Maharey's announcement that Government is working on ways to measure the extent of poverty in New Zealand is a wake-up call for the country. Findings from similar surveys announced yesterday in South Australia, shocked that state. We need to turn up the volume over our poverty. John Howard writes.

The Government, through its Ministry of Social Policy, is to work on a series of indicators which will allow New Zealanders to chart the social wellbeing of the nation.

Recent poverty surveys in South Australia have found that more than two-thirds of the population are unable to save anything out of their weekly pay packet while the average household across the state spent $4.40 a week more than it earned.

The outcome of those surveys have shocked the state and been a huge wake-up call.

It was also found that almost one-third of the respondents could not afford a holiday away for a least one week a year. 14 percent could not afford a special meal once a week and 22 per cent could not afford a night out once a fortnight.

The survey also asked about where, apart from banks, people sought help with money shortages with 26 per cent experiencing a cash flow problem in the previous year.

Adelaide Central Mission's senior policy officer, Mark Henley, said the debt picture was worse that any study would reveal. "It's more grim because the official figures don't include intra-family loans, borrowings from friends, pawnbrokers and loan sharks."

"Also, people who are not in debt are running down their savings - money they've put away for their funerals or kids 21st. It really is a jobs issue," he said.

Many of us in New Zealand will recognise those South Australian figures only too well. A similar situation has been evident in New Zealand for some years and it seems a New Zealand Government is finally getting serious. I predict a huge and shocking wake-up call for the nation is on the near horizon.

It's important, therefore, for the outcome of the work to be credible and, more importantly, readily acceptable to the general public. Setting the agenda and the study itself must include as wide a cross-section of society as possible. Otherwise the Government will be accused by some opponents of cynical manipulation. This work is too important for that to be allowed.

So let's not leave it to policy wonks, we all have a part to play.

If there's one thing New Zealanders are good at, it's talking about our problems. Enough already! Now is the time for doing and helping.

It's simple really. Do you want a growing and prosperous nation, or don't you? If that sounds harsh, it's meant to be. But it's also a moderate and reasonable wake-up call because nobody else in the world is going to help us.

In yesterday's column I suggested that Helen Clark should organise a stream of high-powered Ministers to speak to community groups and individuals at government- arranged think-tanks across New Zealand. Just like she did with the business groups.

In my travels I talk to all kinds of people and I hear all sorts of ideas which could drive this nation forward - many of them from disadvantaged people. Sometimes they just lack the confidence, or are afraid of the great clobbering machine, to bring their great idea forward. They need a think-tank forum to be heard.

Take it from one who knows, if you've been down so long it almost looks like up. At this stage I can only offer people a saying my father taught me. "Aim for the stars and you might hit the ceiling, but aim for the ceiling and your feet won't leave the floor.”

Wouldn't it be great if the Government wrote out to all New Zealanders and simply said, "We want your help."

It would not be an admission of failure, it would be a real indication that, for the first time in a long time, all New Zealanders count. No Government in history has ever been able to claim a monopoly on judgment, knowledge and common sense. Most of the great leaders of the world have recognised this and have sought, using stirring words, the help and the committment of the people.

An earlier Labour Party used the election line, "It's time." Indeed, it is.


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