The Government showed itself embarrassingly insecure about socio-economic inequality in New Zealand today by refusing leave in the House to table graphs from a recent book called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by British researchers Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
Green MP Kennedy Graham asked the Prime Minister if he was concerned that the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2009 shows NZ to be among the most unequal countries in the developed world. The Government transferred the question to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but it was actually answered by Attorney General Chris Finlayson on behalf of the perpetually-absent Minister.
The ‘Minister’ claimed he had not seen the report, and continued to give that answer to subsequent questions (you can read a transcript of the questions in frog’s earlier post). However this doesn’t wash, since he and his officials had been notified some five hours before question time to find this well-publicised, three-week-old report and have a quick look at it.
Kennedy’s supplementary questions focussed on the research findings in The Spirit Level, which clearly documents the close correlation between negative social indicators – health, mental health, life expectancy, violence, imprisonment, drug abuse, obesity, teenage pregnancy and more – and inequality.
This is the most important book I have read this year (along with Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, just launched this week, but that is another blog). It graphs income disparity in a range of OECD countries against their national statistics on all these social indicators and shows a very good fit (although not perfect, and closer for some indicators than others).
It goes on to discuss the reasons – people in a very unequal society are highly stressed by trying to either preserve their place in the social hierarchy, or improve it. The interesting thing is that these negative social indicators apply to the richest in those unequal societies, as well as the poor. New Zealand scores poorly on most of these indicators, as do the US, UK and Portugal, while Japan and the Nordic countries score relatively much better.
Anyway, when Kennedy sought the leave of the House to table three particular pages of the book, National denied leave. That is an unusual thing to do. It usually occurs when people are using the tabling procedure to score political points, and the Speaker has tightened up recently on tabling documents that the House already has easy access to. This was not such a case. It is a new book, not before the House, and most people will not have heard of it. Obviously the Nats have heard of it, and realise how dangerous it would be for their political agenda if it became widely known. They would no longer, for example, be able to grandstand about crime and violence if it could be shown to be exacerbated by the rich-poor gap which Labour did little to reduce and which they are widening.
Ironically, the act of refusing leave to table it might be the very thing that brings it to public notice. It certainly prompted this blog.
You can read more about The Spirit Level and inequality research here.
[UPDATE: Video below of Kennedy tabling the documents. Relevant part starts at 5 minutes 55]