Every year, I feel bemused by the spin about what the country can’t afford, and the things our government chooses to spend money on. Last year seemed particularly stark, but it’s part of an ongoing story. What follows is a list of big payouts I can think of without trying (I’m not commenting on whether they are legitimate, just that they happened).
The government can (and apparently must) spend money to keep large corporations from going broke. The massive bail out of South Canterbury Finance ($1.7 billion, which is such a big number, I prefer to think of it as $400 per person) is the standout, but they’ve been doing it for years. Pretty much every decade there’s a corporation that needs $1-$2 billion to keep up its good work. In the 1990s it was Bank of New Zealand (which got a $1 billion hand out from the government); in the 2000s it was Air New Zealand ($885 million). No doubt the government is giving a bunch of smaller handouts to other corporations that are too paltry to notice. They must be budgeting on $2-$3 billion dollars this decade. This is money the government is simply giving to companies for no reason other than that they screwed up.
Last year, the government decided it could afford to pay 25 % towards repairing “leaky homes”, estimated to cost at least $2 billion. Again, the government didn’t cause the problem with the leaky buildings, it just wants to help out.
The government reckons the country can afford a disaster fund of around $6 billion. Christchurch’s earthquakes will cost more than this, and the government estimates it will need to put in another $1 billion or so to meet its obligations. Again, the government is in no way at fault for the damage, but it can afford to help out.
From 2003 until 2009, the government could afford to set aside over $2 billion per year to build the New Zealand Superannuation Fund (estimated value at November 2011 of $17.6 billion). This is money that the government is saving, so in the future it can give it back to us.
For the 2011/2012 year, the government has a budget of around $82 billion. Of this, they set aside around $3.4 billion for “Defence”, about $9.6 billion for superannuation, and around $3.7 billion servicing debt interest. As a reference point, New Zealand’s estimated gross domestic product for 2011/2012 is around $210 billion.
You’re probably wondering if I have a point. The Crown consistently claims it cannot afford to pay anything like realistic or fair compensation to tangata whenua for the crimes of colonisation, even when it is proven to be at fault, even though it is proven to be benefiting from those crimes. In fact, the Crown claims it can’t afford to fairly compensate tangata whenua for resources before it has even taken them (for example, in taking, dividing up and allocating fisheries or airwaves, or in confiscating the foreshore and seabed). When the Crown decides how much it needs to compensate for its own wrongdoing, it does so not based on what the wronged party believes is fair, nor on an independent ruling on just compensation, nor even on negotiations with the wronged party. The Crown approaches the question of what it ought to pay, by thinking about what it can afford. And the answer it has come up with is somewhere between $1-$2 billion total to cover all claims, whatever they may be for.
It was in the mid-90s that the Crown came up with the figure of $1 billion maximum to settle all “Treaty” claims (you will remember this was about the time they had a spare $1 billion to help out BNZ). They called this the fiscal cap. After the rejection of the fiscal envelope, the Crown no longer refers to the fiscal cap, but they are still working to it (see posttreatysettlements.org.nz).
To be clear, I don’t begrudge people their payouts from the EQC, or their superannuation, or whatever (although I certainly do begrudge the corporate handouts). What I hate is the double standard. Why are tangata whenua less worthy of fair compensation from the Crown for resources the Crown took from them and then made a profit on? Why don’t the media and public get excited about this? If we can muster outrage that the EQC or council has mucked someone around for a year or so, what about people who have been fighting for justice for generations?
Why is there so little pressure on the Crown to even consider what a fair resolution with tangata whenua might look like. If the Crown can afford $3 billion+ per year for defence, or to save $2 billion+ per year towards future bills, but can’t afford more than $2 billion total for Treaty settlements, I’m pretty sure it’s not trying very hard. It certainly isn’t trying when, in creating a new property right as it did with fisheries and airwaves, it must be forced by the courts to set a small fraction aside for tangata whenua. It really isn’t trying when it gives itself the entire foreshore and seabed, even denying tangata whenua the right to test their ownership in court. And it doesn’t seem interested in other ways to rebalance its relationships with tangata whenua. It is stuck in defensiveness and denial.
The Crown claims it can only afford to offer us crumbs and scraps while it feasts at our table. It can find extra for corporate incompetence, disasters, the future even—but not for fixing its own misdeeds. Until it commits to balancing the relationship between tangata whenua and tangata tiriti, our grievances will live on. We will continue to bang on about sovereignty, justice and tino rangatiratanga; we will continue to educate and to organise. We will grind away. The Crown will find it cannot afford to ignore us.