I joined the Territorials when I was 20 years old. A privileged kid from east Auckland with a weird German last name, I was assigned a bunk on day one of basic training. On my left, a 40-year old Māori man from the East Cape. On my right, a 28-year old Taiwanese born lawyer. Opposite me, a 17-year old kid from rural Southland.
For two months we lived and worked together. We learnt to look past the things that separated us. Our age, ethnicity and upbringing became secondary to a shared identity. It was proof that as people, we’re at our best when we choose to take responsibility for each other.
There’s a list of shared experiences that are supposed to make us Kiwi — the AB’s, jandals on the beach, a hāngi. But amongst all the gumboot Kiwiana, we find ourselves sliding into factions. Iwi-Kiwi politics, social media bubbles, low social mobility, the rural-urban divide.
When household income in Auckland is comparable to Finland, but Northland is on par with East Timor, we need to accept that the ‘Kiwi way of life’ means fundamentally different things to different people.
This isn’t an article about inequality or welfare reform. It’s an acknowledgment that we increasingly live a blinkered life, blind to the people and places that don’t fit our definition of being Kiwi. It offers a solution, a way to weave a stronger social fabric where all Kiwis — brown, white, rich, poor, city or country — are compelled to look each other in the eye and take responsibility for one another.
We felt it after the Christchurch terrorist attack. That no matter what comes our way, we’re stronger if we face it together. Through collective grief, we’ve been reminded of the power that we so often overlook in today’s individualistic society; the power of us.
Our challenge now is to have the courage to tread boldly and enact policy that builds on the bonds between us.
To start, let’s look outwards at two examples of proactive, social cohesion policymaking.
Singapore was born at the nexus of empires and is an ethnic mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian. It declared independence in a time of domestic terrorism and violent race riots. Recognising that ethnic divisions would cripple the fledgling republic, Singapore enacted two crucial policies to bind its population together; compulsory military service and ethnic quotas for state-built housing. Over the years, the housing policy broke up the ethnic enclaves and literally brought factions together. The current deputy prime minster describes it as being about “the everyday experiences. It’s walking the corridors with your neighbours, its kids growing up together in the playgrounds…. But it doesn’t come about by accident”.
Israel is an extreme example. It’s social cohesion policy is designed to support a cycle of seemingly endless war. But, politics aside, there are lessons there too. Half of the nation’s school-leavers spend up to three years serving in the Israeli Defence Force, leaving with subsidised tertiary study or business loans. The country sits in the desert, wedged among enemies and lacks natural resources, yet leads the world in start-ups per capita and has 60+ NASDAQ listed companies. This entrepreneurial spirit is often attributed to national military service, where young Israelis develop a variety of skills, practice initiative & responsibility and fast-track their careers through military-to-business networks.
Our great Kiwi cohesion project should be a national year of service, built around our best asset; young New Zealanders.
To start, lets draw a clear line between citizen and military service. We’ve never been a militaristic society and the great challenges of our time call for teacher aides, health support staff and nature guardians, not soldiers. Young citizens could serve across education, health, green infrastructure, field science and social work corps. Imagine the collective difference of a teacher assistant in every classroom or another health worker in each small town. Could thousands of young people make Predator Free 2050 a reality, plant a billion trees and build the climate resilient infrastructure we’ll soon desperately need?
Citizen service is an opportunity to redefine the social contract that binds us all together. By reinforcing values like community and sacrifice, we can enshrine service as part of ‘the Kiwi way of life’ — right alongside voting, Christmas on the beach and cheering on the AB’S. But we can’t talk our way there. Rewriting our social DNA for these traits means physically creating a new rite-of-passage. We’ll all benefit when our young people break out of their comfort zones and re-imagine their potential by experiencing the people and places that make them Kiwi.
This rite-of-passage is a chance to truly invest in young New Zealanders and our collective future. How many Kiwi’s know first-aid and disaster preparedness? How many have had a chance to develop a love for the bush? How well do we understand basic nutrition, balancing a budget or our civic duty? Citizen service should start with a short, outdoor orientated life skills course — colliding young Kiwis from all walks of life in a structured, supportive environment to learn about each other and grow together. There are many precedents — from basic military training, to the army’s Youth Development Courses or your school camp.
Let’s ask the hard question. How much? National citizen service is an ‘upstream’ policy. It will be expensive, but pay for itself over time through higher incomes and reduced health, justice and social costs. Initial US research is promising, suggesting that national service programs deliver $2.20 for every taxpayer dollar invested. A $40,000 package (covering a basic wage and tertiary study, home deposit or entrepreneurs grant) for every 18-year-old in the country, plus 5% increases in the health, education, departmental social services and environmental protection budgets (to cover extra administration), amounts to $4.4 billion per year. If we fold in the $2.6 billion already set aside in 2018 for free tertiary study and training, the program starts to look viable at $1.8 billion per year. That’s comparable with the cost of early childhood education and before any downstream tax-take increases, cost savings or smarter financing options like a government baby bond investment scheme.
New Zealand was built by young people doing incredible things. Our ancestors boldly struck out for a new home, our grandparents landed on hostile shores to confront fascism, our parents stared down a nuclear super-power and stood up for human rights. In contrast, our age is one of safety and self-interest — there is no great struggle that defines what we stand for and few pathways for us to repay the privilege of being a Kiwi.
The response to Christchurch showed us what kind of nation we could be. But talk and good intentions won’t get us there — we need brave policy. National citizen service won’t be easy, cheap, fast or perfect. But we owe it to ourselves and the generations to come to try it. Now more than ever.