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Revisiting New Zealand's Policy Approach: The Nuances Of Equality And Equity

While the coalition government of Aotearoa/New Zealand has taken strides to distinguish between 'equality' and 'equity' in its policy framework, this approach is not without its challenges and criticisms. Specifically, the use of equality in addressing individual needs across the board may fall short for those who start from a position of disadvantage due to historical injustices or systemic barriers for groups such as Māori and Pasifika.

Applying a principle of equality in services such as education, healthcare, and welfare assumes that access to the same resources is sufficient to ensure fair outcomes for all. However, this approach often overlooks the fact that not everyone begins from the same starting point. Individuals from marginalised communities, for example, may face entrenched barriers that cannot be overcome simply by providing the same level of resources as provided to everyone else. These barriers might include differences in baseline health, educational preparedness, economic stability, or cultural accessibilities, which are often shaped by long-standing systemic inequities.

Acknowledging these complexities, it becomes evident that a more consistent application of equity might be necessary not only in regional development but also in crafting policies that impact individuals directly. Equity-driven policies would take into account the varying starting points of individuals and communities, aiming to provide differentiated resources tailored to levelling the playing field. This approach would mean more than equal access; it would involve targeted interventions designed to compensate for historical and structural disadvantages. Furthermore, it recognises and affirms where people are, and seeks to provide justice not only for their benefit, but for their next generation.

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For instance, in education, instead of uniform funding per student, potentially scrapping their requirement and using an equity-focused approach involving higher levels of funding or additional resources for schools in lower socio-economic areas or for programs supporting indigenous education. In healthcare, it could mean more substantial investments in mental health services or addiction recovery programs in communities historically underserved.

The current New Zealand coalition government has enacted a series of policies that predominantly lean towards the principle of equality, applying uniform standards and benefits across the board. This approach, while seemingly fair in its uniformity, often overlooks the varying starting points of individuals and regions, potentially leading to a disparity in actual outcomes. Below are examples that illustrate how these policies, under the guise of equality, may not adequately address or compensate for entrenched inequalities among the populace.

Policies in the spot light

Tax Cuts and Fiscal Policies

Tax cuts and other fiscal policies that provide uniform benefits to all taxpayers exemplify this equality-based approach. By implementing tax cuts across the board, the government treats all individuals the same, irrespective of their differing financial situations. This approach fails to recognise that the same tax cut can have significantly different impacts on the wealthy compared to those on lower incomes, thus not assisting those in greater need or contributing effectively to reducing financial inequality.

Educational Reforms

Educational reforms that standardise curriculum content across all schools are another example of an equality-focused approach. This standardisation does not take into account the diverse cultural backgrounds or specific educational needs of different student populations, such as indigenous communities or immigrants, potentially leading to a one-size-fits-all education that fails to engage or adequately serve all students. Policies around using structured literacy, though a great tool for teaching reading, placing a blanket approach to reaching provides equality, but doesn’t take into account those who might struggle with it.

Infrastructure Development with Regional Focus

Conversely, the Regional Infrastructure Fund, which targets development in less urban areas, is a move towards equity. It acknowledges that different regions have different needs and potentials, aiming to level the playing field by providing specific support where it is most needed, thus fostering more balanced regional growth.

Legislative Repeals (Three Waters, Fair Pay Agreements)

The repeal of legislations like the Three Waters reform and Fair Pay Agreements, which aimed at standardising conditions across industries and sectors, represents a shift back to equality. By treating all industries and sectors uniformly, these repeals disregard the unique challenges and conditions faced by different workers and industries, potentially leading to inequitable outcomes.

Treaty Principles Bill and Official Language Policies

Finally, modifying Treaty-related legislation and affirming English as an official language, while promoting a uniform historical and linguistic standard, can marginalise the specific treaty obligations and cultural recognitions that are crucial for Māori communities. This approach, leaning towards equality, potentially undermines the unique cultural heritage and rights of indigenous populations.

To move towards a society where all have the opportunity to succeed, Aotearoa/New Zealand's policies must evolve to incorporate both equality and equity. Equality should continue to ensure that everyone has access to a baseline of rights and services, but equity must be there to adjust the scales where necessary. It is through this dual approach that we can begin to rectify historical wrongs, cater to diverse needs, and construct a nation where the success of each individual contributes to the prosperity of the whole.

As Aotearoa/New Zealand looks to the future, its policymakers are faced with the critical task of recalibrating the balance between equality and equity. By integrating an equity-focused lens into all areas of governance, the country can pave the way for sustainable, inclusive development that honours the unique journey of every resident and citizen of our great country. The focus on equity, alongside equality, in policymaking is not just a matter of political correctness—it's a cornerstone of a democracy that values each citizen and recognises the richness of its diverse tapestry.

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