Last night Closeup ran a story titled “shocking teen life exposed in Kawerau” (or words to that effect). The story was alarmist and delivered without any context to ground the viewer. The panel discussion following the story was even worse. John Tamihere provided useful and insightful commentary, however Christine Rankin and Daryl Aim contributed nothing useful. I don’t know how Christine Rankin doesn’t choke on the shit she talks while Daryl Aim – who isn’t a local – doesn’t understand the issues nor know of any solutions. Before I continue, I will preface this post and restate my connections to Kawerau. Long time readers will know that I grew up in Kawerau, although I have lived in Wellington for the past one and half years and Rotorua the five years prior, I still call Kawerau home and I have an intimate and deep understanding of the people and the issues.
To be fair, Closeup has highlighted issues that need to be addressed. Where the programme strays is in tainting the entire town as dysfunctional. Yes, there have been incidents of organised fights, sex for drugs and youth suicides, however this is symptomatic of a larger problem in New Zealand society – not symptomatic of problems confined to Kawerau. These sorts of things are hardly alarming or new. In fact organised fights and suicide are, to be frank, thoroughly pedestrian. Even sex for drugs is hardly unheard of. Spend a night of Courtney Place and you’ll see more than your fair share of such behaviour. Other small towns face the same problems that Kawerau does, Rotorua faces the same problems and so to do a collection of other suburbs and cities. The difference is that the ripples of suicide, organised fights and so on travel further and reverberate across the entire community. Social problems in small towns seem more pronounced because the entire community is affected as opposed to, as is the case in cities, a segment of the community. Kawerau is, for the most part, a good town with a strong sense of community and citizenship.
If we are to understand why Kawerau is, apparently, plagued by social problems we need a history lesson. Kawerau’s decline coincided with the onset of Rogernomics and slowly continued through to the early 2000’s. In the late 80’s the Mill experienced large-scale redundancies and large retailers like Farmers and the Warehouse decided to locate their Eastern Bay of Plenty stores in Whakatane. Partly because the Kawerau labour market was volatile (job losses and strike actions were common) and partly because Kawerau was experiencing something of an exodus. Many middle and high-income mill workers left Kawerau for nearby lifestyle towns like Ohope. Demand for the Mill’s product also declined through the 90’s as competition throughout Australasia and Asia increased. Many Kawerau residents started to question the long term viability of the Mill and the local economy. Consequently, many residents searched for opportunities elsewhere.
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s the town stabilised. Although the population continued to decline the future of the Mill was certain and other opportunities, such as geothermal power, emerged. Social indicators continued to paint a depressing picture, however the stats had not manifested into large scale anti-social behaviour.
Fast forward to the mid to late 2000’s and things take a turn for the worst. Small but frequent redundancies begin to occur at the Mill, consequently local businesses begin to flee or go under, no new jobs are created and the local high school hits rock bottom. The town’s decline is complete.
Kawerau is the victim of failure – failure on the part of successive governments. Successive governments have thrown resources at Kawerau. However, those resources have not come with qualifications. The government has not ensured adequate funding is given to the best organisations, government agencies in the town work in competition with each other and improved outcomes are, therefore, compromised.
Perhaps the most significant let down is the chronic short-termism that plagues New Zealand political and policy thinking. New Zealand is always searching for immediate solutions and quick fixes. We like to treat symptoms but are blind to the structural causes of anti-social behaviour etc… The government can encourage novelty schemes for beneficiaries, increase the number of Police and open a trade training school, but unless the structural causes are addressed no long term difference will be made. New generations of lost children will be made each day.
The structural cause of anti-social behaviour in Kawerau is, in my opinion, our current economic settings. Let me be clear, I believe in the market as the best mechanism, however I do not believe in the neo-liberal model New Zealand adopts. A model that encourages low wages and inequality. A model associated with, and in my opinion responsible for, poor educational and health outcomes, high crime rates and incarceration and chronic inequality.
Unless we switch to a model that promotes higher wages, reduces inequality and addresses other poor social and economic problems, like the problems that occur in Kawerau, will continue to occur.
One thing that really gets me is ignorant suggestions that gangs and drugs are the cause of social problems in Kawerau. Gangs have always been a problem in Kawerau. By all accounts gang violence peaked in the 80’s. During my childhood gang violence was non-existent. Many of the town’s troubles are blamed on the presence and influence of gangs. However, this misses the point. Gangs are an expression of social dysfunction, not a cause. Undoubtedly, gang culture influences many young people, but gang culture is itself a symptom and suppressing one symptom will not improve the condition. The same is true of drugs. Drugs are an expression of a larger problem and serve mainly to lock people into destructive lifestyles.
I am disappointed Closeup chose to spin the situation in Kawerau. Kawerau faces serious issues that deserve adult treatment, not sensationalist bullshit. Closeup have attempted to deal with a serious issue, but fucked it tabloid style. The journalist, whatever his name was, clearly has no understanding of small town New Zealand, in fact no understanding of New Zealand society at all. Useless prick. Mark Sainsbury was just as bad, if not worse if that is even possible. The discussion he hosted with John Tamihere, Christine Rankin and Daryl Aim was horrendous. Sainsbury appeared more interested in attracting controversial comments as opposed to obtaining anything insightful.
Anywho, I have dragged this post out. Closeup will feature a follow-up story tonight. I will comment on it tomorrow hopefully.