Analysis: On Thursday afternoon, Chris Bishop, a former university debating champion whose performances in Parliament’s Question Time tend to span a continuum between controlled outrage and being really f*#@ing outraged, asked the Associate Minister for Social Development and Employment about people sleeping in cars.
It’s almost impossible to know, exactly, how many people sleep in cars. “None”, would be the best answer. But this isn’t a “best answer” world.
One measure is how many people on the Housing Register (essentially a waiting list of people assessed as eligible for public housing, but not yet in it) give their address as a car.
How many applicants for public housing, Chris Bishop asked, indicated they were living in a car in June 2023, compared with October 2017?
Priyanca Radhakrishnan answered that in June 2023. “There were 480 applicants who put ‘car’ down as their accomodation type, compared to 102 in October 2017.”
From 102 to 480.
“I refuse to stand by while children are sleeping in cars”, Jacinda Ardern said, in the 1 News Leaders’ Debate, pre-election in 2017.
It was one of those memorable lines that contained a zeitgeist fury. Back then, sleeping in cars was evidence of the kind of failure that defines a Government.
Now? It gets less attention.
Some of this is down to a paradox. The Housing Register has grown because it has some meaning. In her answer to Chris Bishop’s question, Associate Minister Radhakrishnan reminded us: “This Government has added 12,198 net additional public homes, as compared to that member’s Government who left us with 1,500 public homes fewer compared to when they took office.”
Yes. You only join a queue when you believe it’s leading somewhere. Albeit slowly. Besides, the previous National Government appeared to get its State housing policy from Humpty Dumpty.
This is a recurring theme in Labour’s response when National attacks its provision and management of public housing.
Housing Minister, Megan Woods, responding to Nicola Willis in 2021, brandished the derisory “they” for National’s performance when in Government. A finger-wagging “they”. “They finished Government with 1,500 fewer houses than they started with. If they’d built at even our minimum level of 1,600 houses a year, we would have had 15,000 more public houses in New Zealand.”
But Chris Bishop’s point is also fair. And important. And if Labour and its supporters were appalled by people sleeping in cars in 2017, surely they’ll be appalled by it now?
Judging by Twitter traffic – maybe not.
An interesting thing happened on Friday morning. Bernard Hickey tweeted out the same link to the Parliamentary exchange between Chris Bishop and Priyanca Radhakrishnan that I’ve attached (above), with an accompanying twelve-word commentary: “This says it all. As the rain comes down. And it’s cold.”
Had it been 2017, and had National been in power, this would likely have had so many retweets it would have got dizzy. But in the twelve hours that followed it going up, it was retweeted only once. Once. By the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).
CPAG didn’t hold back. “Touché @bernardchickey”, their tweet commenced, ending: “The state of the nation can be summed up in this headline. The children living in cars are not included in @Stats_NZ child poverty data. Abhorrent, outrageous, unacceptable.”
But no-one did. CPAG, whose commitment to addressing child poverty is rigorous, intelligent and admirably non-partisan, weren’t retweeted at all in the following twelve hours. That despite the excellently Twitter baiting fodder of those three furious words: “Abhorrent, outrageous, unacceptable.”
Not even National supporters went near it.
Indeed, if you go to National’s website, there’s no mention whatsoever of the information Chris Bishop elicited from Priyanca Radhakrishnan in Parliament on Thursday afternoon.
Instead, as I write this, National’s issue of the moment (and obviously their website is constantly updated) is crime.
Yes, a third of National’s front twelve “press releases” at the close of the week were on crime, with ram raids mentioned nine times.
Imagine, the power if National had linked the impacts of a childhood in which economic deprivation was so great that their “home” was a car, with the tragically increased likelihood of criminality.
The link is established. Starkly. “Children born into poverty more likely to become criminals”, RNZ headlined a story in 2018, reporting on research by the Ministry of Social Development.
If Labour and its supporters were appalled by people sleeping in cars in 2017, surely they’ll be appalled by it now? Won’t they?
— John Campbell
The then Children’s Commissioner, and former principal judge of the country’s Youth Court, Andrew Becroft, is quoted. “He said children suffering from material hardship were more likely to end up with a poor education and in crime when they grew up.” Yes. “We know that long-term education is going to be a challenge”, Andrew Becroft is reported as saying. “We know that they are, the kids, especially the boys, are at risk of criminal offending. So this isn’t just a theoretical issue, this [has] significant life ramifications.”
And here we are. Five years later. Living with them.
I’ve written, at length, about the backgrounds of ram raiders. I’ve gone out with a pilot scheme that appears to be having success targeting children at risk before they become seriously criminally problematic.
And I’ve spoken to the new Principal Youth Court Judge, Ida Malosi, about the young offenders she sees in her court.
Some characterise this work as being soft on crime. It isn’t. I’ll tell you what’s soft on crime. Not addressing its causes and then responding after the damage has been done.
Which brings me back to where we started. With people living in cars.
In 2017, poverty was a genuine election issue. In 2020, it was usurped by Covid. In 2023, it appears to have fallen between the cracks created by the two major parties wilfully looking elsewhere.
In part, tribalism does this. Issues that don’t reflect well on a party aren’t issues that party supporters will focus on.
But it’s more complex than that. Tribal voters don’t decide elections. Non-tribal (floating) voters do.
There’s a fascinating paper out of Harvard University, that looks at the sway of tribal politics. In part, its definition of tribalism is, well, tribal. But when it gets closest to a democracy like New Zealand, it’s truly illuminating.
“Since tribal agents vote inelastically for their tribal candidate, a winning tribal candidate must choose policies that cater to the swing non-tribal voters. Thus, in a tribal regime, the policy serves the independent voters from the majority group. Typically… this means a policy that serves the better-off segments of society.”
It’s easy to forget that Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister in 2017 when Winston Peters decided to go with Labour. If you watch the speech in which he announces that decision, it’s not only compelling because he hasn’t aged a day in the six years since, nor changed his suit, nor seemingly ever used the handkerchief he keeps in his jacket pocket, but because its culmination sounds like a 1970’s student activist speaking through a fog of weed to the Young Socialists Club at Victoria University.
“Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism not as their friend, but as their foe.” “Capitalism must regain its human face”.
Preach, Comrade Winston. Preach.
In short, we’d had enough of people sleeping in cars. And we’d had enough of the kind of winner-takes-all wealth distribution that Winston Peters twice named as “capitalism”.
I’ve written about this, in a piece years in the making!
If you haven’t read it (or listened to it), please feel free to do so! It recalls the aspirations of Jacinda Ardern as incoming Prime Minister, in 2017. And it looks at what each of the major parties is offering in response to widening inequality and the toll that being left behind takes.
The dreadful toll. That can end with homelessness, hopelessness, and deprivation.
That can end with children made criminal by the damage they suffer, and with shopkeepers living in fear of the damage those broken children do.
And that can end with politicians who know the problem but aren’t quite sure what to do about it, or who would rather pick up the broken pieces than take meaningfully pre-emptive action to stop the damage from being done.
John Campbell is TVNZ’s Chief Correspondent. This story is part of an ongoing political analysis series ahead of the election. You can find more of his work here.