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Steve Maharey Speech: Valuing connection

Steve Maharey Speech: Valuing connection

Address to Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Biennial Conference. Heritage Hotel, Christchurch.

Introduction

Kia ora ladies and gentlemen.

How's this for a situations vacant ad?

Help wanted. For long-term commitment. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No holidays. No sick leave.

Must be a multi-tasker. Must be flexible and able to function on minimum sleep.

Skills in nursing, teaching, coaching, and negotiation are required.

Patience, tolerance and a sense of humour are helpful.

Obviously, I'm talking parenthood. And despite the apparent drawbacks of this position, every year thousands of New Zealanders put their hands up.

However, it's only after the passing of the first few days and weeks of excitement and congratulations, that reality dawns. Not just the huge responsibility that it is to raise a healthy, well-balanced and productive member of our society. But simply to meet the deluge of demands involved in the day-to-day caring for an infant.

Which is where the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society has been the backstop, the source of wisdom and a lifesaver for many New Zealand families.

Plunket: a voice over time

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you today as you look back on your long history and celebrate your proud tradition of service with the launch of A Voice for Mothers.

For today’s current leadership – Paul Baigent, Chief Executive, Pam Murray, President and Kaye Crowther Vice President – this book sharply defines the responsibility you have in continuing what has gone before you! Certainly the regard with which Plunket is held is evidenced by the people in attendance today.

I congratulate the book’s author, Linda Bryder, on painting the picture of an organisation that has successfully weathered the changes and evolution of New Zealand society. Especially such huge changes as experienced over the 20th century.

A Voice for Mothers traces the journey Plunket has travelled to ensure its enduring relevance over the decades.

It starts with the challenge of growing a momentum from Plunket’s inception in the early 1900s. It builds to perhaps the society’s strongest position in the dawning of the New Zealand welfare state, under this country's first Labour government.

In reading this history I relate well to Plunket’s strong encouragement of the role of fathers in parenting. This was a growing emphasis from the 1950s on.

I believe that every father has a responsibility to be emotionally, practically, and financially engaged with his parenting responsibilities. This is a life-long responsibility that comes with the privilege of being a parent. Even in today’s environment of less formalised and less stable family relationships.

I’d be interested, though, to see the reaction of the 1950s father reading the recommended daily nursing routine put forward by paediatrician and Plunket medical advisor Dr Helen Deem.

Dr Deem proposed that between 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning, the nursing mother be brought a glass of hot water or weak tea, or juice, before baby is changed, fed and put back in the cot.

More pointedly, that where no home help was available, that the father prepare the drink, change the baby and bring the infant to its mother.

I can imagine that recommendation going down about as well as the two daily dosings of fish oil also recommended – for the baby, not the father.

The emergence of feminism in the seventies provided yet more challenges for Plunket as the role of parenting in society took a back seat to other aims and ambitions.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, the increasing urbanisation of Mäori, Pacific immigration and other social changes have further spurred a shift in service delivery to better reflect the changing population.

Even more recently some would add the growing materialism of society generally has eroded the base from which organisations such as Plunket can draw.

For today’s society is about ‘me’ rather than ‘we’.

And, today, we think of ourselves as a more knowledgeable and sophisticated society than that of our forefathers. So in many ways it is a sad commentary that in the 21st century we seem to be witnessing a lack of certain parenting skills - knowledge about nutrition, child development, physical discipline; skills Plunket set out to build from its earliest days.

For all our sophistication it seems we’ve followed that timeworn adage that “those who cannot remember their history are condemned to repeat it” .

Putting children first

Plunket clearly remembers its history and remains a strong and highly regarded institution in this country.

Truly, this is a testament to Plunket’s willingness to meet the ever-changing needs of society. But also that you have remained true to your core vision and purpose. Child health is – and has always been – your touchstone.

Such a touchstone has great resonance with this government.

We strongly believe that making an investment in the health and capability of our children today is vital for the wellbeing of New Zealanders tomorrow.

The work of Plunket in fostering strong bonds between parent and child lays the foundation for the future relationships that children form outside the family circle; the connections they make as adults.

Equally of interest to me though is Plunket’s function as a community organisation; it’s potential as a focus of civic engagement. My particular interest is spurred by the thinking of Professor Robert Putnam, a leading American social scientist from Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.

Putnam’s work identified the impacts of a decline in civic engagement in American society. In comparing such social trends as the increase in crime and drug abuse, decreasing educational achievement, with a decline in voting and social activities such as picnic-going, he reflected the momentum of a community in breakdown Though a picture of the American experience we can find strong similarities here.

The value of connectedness

In exploring these trends Professor Putnam came up with the concept of social capital – essentially the value derived from social connectedness.

He proposes that the fostering of social capital delivers a wide variety of quite specific benefits. That in fact the most successful results in education, employment, public health and the control of crime and drug abuse are achieved in civically engaged societies.

Professor Putnam expressed these thoughts in an essay on social capital entitled ’Bowling Alone’. This essay observes that as Americans were systematically disengaging from community life they were spending more time in bowling alleys. Only, they weren’t playing in league teams. They were choosing increasingly to bowl alone.

Professor Putnam draws a compelling parallel between this disengagement in a somewhat incidental leisure activity and the fact that Americans are voting less, getting less involved in parent-teacher associations, volunteering less, and abandoning clubs and societies.

Again it’s the prevalence of the ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ society.

The antidote to the ills of the ‘I’ society, it seems, is social capital operating through it core function of building connections.

Putnam found that the states in America recording high levels of social capital - where trust was higher, where people voted and socialised more and where more joined organisations - also tended to have the lowest rates of crime, teenage pregnancy and suicide.

What’s more children performed better in school and people possessed the skills needed to be politically active.

Even more startling, Putnam believes that social connections impact so greatly on people’s physical health that the chance of dying - prematurely - is cut in half by joining a group.

That’s surely good news for anyone contemplating giving up jogging.

For society in general to benefit, the connectedness Putnam promotes must happen across the different striations of communities. Linkages must be built within groups of people who are similar or who have similar aims. Upping the ante, they must also be built between groups of people who are different.

However, solving complex social problems with nationally applied solutions can only ever have limited effect.

It’s at the grass roots level that specific problems - and the opportunities to solve them – can be more readily identified and implemented.

Anyone who’s ever purchased a ’one size fits all’ garment, well knows that the label should in fact read ‘one size fits no-one’.

Professor Putnam observes that when the networks that hold communities together are nurtured, they have a considerable influence on the performance of those communities; even to the extent that “social capital can help to mitigate the insidious effects of socio-economic disadvantage.”

The challenge then is to foster a society where people want to become – and to remain – engaged.

Plunket as social capital investor

Clearly the work of Plunket plays a role here.

At a core level you help the building of social capital through encouraging a strong and secure attachment between parent and child. It is this relationship that provides the foundation for children’s positive experience of - and connection to - the rest of the world, throughout their lives.

In achieving this you are also building social capital though fostering connections between parents. Plunket is heavily involved in encouraging parents to develop social networks. The linkages achieved here can often be between groups of parents from very different social backgrounds.

The work of your mobile clinics is also seeing your reach extending beyond child and parent and therefore reinforces broader links within and across the community.

The fact you are an organisation that engages volunteers is another direct characteristic of the social capital investor. And this impacts on two levels.

Firstly, you are encouraging people to contribute. This in turn can act as an inspiration for others to do the same. In the social capital sphere this is termed as reciprocity and is the key vehicle as to how social capital delivers positive benefits to communities.

Secondly, something highlighted in A Voice for Mothers, the skills people have gained through their involvement with Plunket have provided a valuable springboard for them to move into other roles. The effect is much wider reaching and much longer lasting than necessarily the involvement with Plunket itself.

So you see, you are a very strong capital investor! I’m happy to tell you, though, you are not alone!

A new approach

In taking office, this government, sought a new approach to addressing the complex social problems we continue to experience in the 21st century.

This government’s vision for the country is a prosperous, inclusive and environmentally sustainable society. A society characterised by opportunity for all. A society where, no matter your gender, your ethnicity or even where you live, you can make your own way in life.

Our new approach is to build a better society through social development.

Social development involves co-ordinated social change to promote the wellbeing of the whole of a society - not just some of its individual members.

Social development is an approach that necessitates working in partnership with people, their families and communities, to help break cycles and build the bridge to participation. Socially and economically.

The barriers to participation are many. To address them, social development requires new and strengthened partnerships between central and local government and the community. And a clear focus is needed to drive all efforts.

In short, social development involves tackling the underlying causes of people's problems rather than throwing money at the symptoms. It shifts the bookkeeping view of social welfare as an item of consumption for a society to that of an investment.

The creation of the Ministry of Social Development some two years ago has been key to the instigation of this new approach. In addressing this government’s goals, the Ministry is focused on priorities in areas in which I know you hold an interest. The Ministry is concentrating its efforts on building the quality of social policy and research so we can better identify where the problems are and ‘what works’ in addressing them. It is investing in families and supporting parenting to improve a whole range of outcomes for our children. It is working also to support the community and voluntary sector.

In looking ahead our focus must also be on how we improve connectedness; on how we encourage more civic participation.

We need a framework of social policy that builds New Zealand’s social capital.

Building contribution

Voluntary and community organisations have a significant role to play here. Often they can support families and individuals in ways the government can’t. The ongoing challenge to us then, is to provide an environment where these contributors can function effectively.

As a beginning we have made a commitment to work in respectful and co-operative relationships with the community and volunteer sector. We confirmed this commitment in the 2001 Statement of Government Intentions for an Improved Community Government Relationship.

In 2002 we complemented this, releasing the Government Policy on Volunteering. This policy seeks to further recognise the depth and breadth of contributions that the people of New Zealand make through volunteering.

Soon, from the end of August, we again build on this recognition with the establishment of a dedicated entity to strengthen the community and government relationship.

The Community and Voluntary Sector Office will take over the Ministry of Social Development’s relationship work programme and voluntary policy function. The Office will especially seek to promote good practice in the ways government agencies interact with community and voluntary organisations.

Our purpose in introducing these measures is to build an active and enduring voluntary and community sector. New Zealand’s social problems are as complex as they are persistent. To solve them takes active participation from all quarters – from government, business, community and volunteers alike.

A successful journey

Any organisation seeking to remain an active contributor to the lives of New Zealanders would do well to acquaint themselves with Plunket’s journey.

As A Voice for Mothers documents, it’s a journey that takes passion, courage and perseverance. It also requires a willingness to move with an evolving nation.

These are the foundations for Plunket’s success. And as A Voice quotes Ian Hassall, Deputy Medical Director from 77 to 89, and later this country’s fist Children’s Commissioner, such an organisation as Plunket ’either articulates and secures the needs of its constituents or it is history’.

I congratulate you on successfully securing your place in the hearts and lives of New Zealanders for most of the 20th century. Generations of mothers and their children have you to thank for their health and well being.

The experience gained over this long tradition of service stands you in good stead to continue well into the 21st century.

No doubt challenge will remain a constant. But the wisdom and experience wrought of years will ensure you continue to make a positive contribution in the lives of many generations to come.

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