By SARAH SPARKS
“Poverty is fostered by those exploiting the poor, governments doing too little, or worse, adopting anti-poverty policies,” believes Kushlan Sugathapala.
A contributor to The New Zealand Herald, researcher, and chartered accountant challenged the room at the Pompallier Diocesan Centre in Auckland recently to reflect on the cost of not alleviating poverty.
“The benefits of doing this are a hand up, not a hand down,” he said.
Two days after the Finance Minister Grant Robertson released the ‘Wellbeing Budget 2023’ trying to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, the presentation by Mr Sugathapala was timely.
At the invitation of Auckland diocese Justice and Peace Commission, with Bishop Stephen Lowe in attendance, Mr Sugathapala walked them through a detailed 100-year New Zealand chronology of the impacts of poverty.
The discussion canvassed the causes, the costs, the conundrum, and the conscience call for everyone, especially politicians in positions of power, to play their part in alleviating poverty.
Mr Sugathapala shared a brief history of economics, fair market regulation, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage birthing the modern welfare state, oil shocks and collapse of wool prices, the Muldoon government’s costly Think Big Programme, social impacts of exploitative industries, health and housing outcomes, through to the role of taxation to redistribute income and reduce inequality.
He spoke about the “extreme tax situation” in New Zealand. He said that tax cuts historically have benefitted the highest income earners, while the burden of GST was carried by low and middle income earners. This is an imbalance which was shown as recently as April in the IRD High Wealth Individual’s Research Project.
Triggering headlines like “the ram-raiding of the uber rich”, it reported that the rich pay less than ten per cent effective tax on their overall economic income, while the rest of the working population pays twenty per cent.
Mr Sugathapala presented a compelling case that navigated the swing from Savage’s “capitalism with a human face” to our contemporary reality thanks to the Reagan and Thatcher years that unravelled all the gains made 50 years prior.
“The past century of capitalism has been a game of two halves. From 1930 to 1980 saw some of the greatest advances in social and economic gains,” he said, before reminding the room that “Rogernomics changed New Zealand into one of modern capitalism’s most extreme versions”.
The scales that Mr Sugathapala figuratively brought to the room were anchored in an unabashed call for a fairer and equitable rebalance towards social spending to support those struggling, yet with a realistic take on the current political appetite for transformation.
He believes that the two major political parties don’t really see improving things for the less-fortunate and people on low incomes as a vote-winner.
He’s of the conviction that, as a result, “at the moment, we are leaving a lot of people behind”.
“Whereas, in places like Scandinavia, the evidence shows that they look after their people well, so they have more of a chance to pull out of poverty, educate themselves, and remain healthier.”
“Obviously there are exceptions like Sir John Key, who came from a state house, but if you start like one hundred metres behind, you need a special bit of support to get yourself where the rest of the country is,” he said.
His comments led to provocative opinions in the room that reflected the typical diverse range of views in society. Some argued that there needs to be greater personal responsibility.
“You cannot blame the Government or throw money at the problem,” was one response by a former crown prosecutor.
“What concerns me is – we are a benefit-dependent country. Why is that? I know a lot of families who came from a not-so-great start who have turned their lives around.”
“But it’s deeper than that. Seventy per cent of people in prison reoffend in two years. Seventy per cent come from broken homes. We need to support families, that’s where it starts,” she said.
Whereas another audience member was adamant that the Government has a responsibility to address the lack of job opportunities.
“Recent MBIE research . . . projects [that], by 2025, the majority of the workforce will be brown and supporting you in retirement,” she said.
There were differences alongside shared similar viewpoints, which confirms that attitudes towards the spectrum of poverty and privilege will be highly politicised ahead of the October 18 general election.
Thanking the speaker, Justice and Peace committee member Catherine Gillies mentioned a discussion in her family where “capitalism is the root of evil” was mentioned.
Mr Sugathapala responded. “They say money is the root of all evil, I say the lack of money is perhaps the bigger evil.”
Photo: (From left) Former JPC executive secretary Peter Garrick, Kushlan Sugathapala, Auckland diocese vicar for social impact and communications Loraine Elliott and Bishop Stephen Lowe