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For Christmas, please can we renew my Social Contract?

photo of dave HendersonDave Henderson, Manager External Relations
Hui E! Community Aotearoa

I was fortunate in November to attend a 3-day workshop in Istanbul, organised by CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

In the past few years CIVICUS has been documenting the trend in many countries – not just in dictatorships but equally in western-style liberal democracies – towards deliberate erosion of the space in which civil society is able to operate and exert its freedoms of speech and association.

Unfortunately naming and shaming countries, and asking civil society activists to write to the leaders of countries who create restrictive regimes, has not been enough to turn what has become a tide. Increasingly CIVICUS is calling for a renewal of the concept of a social contract – hence the workshop in Istanbul.

The concept of a social contract argues that people benefit from living together in countries, kingdoms, or other types of governmental oversight.

Living in society requires compromises, and these are laid out in rules and laws, established with the consent of citizens by a government that also rules with the consent of citizens. Individuals who live within such a structure gain protections, and in return they give up certain freedoms. The result is a society better able to become more stable, wealthy, and happy.

The concept of a social contract is not new or radical; John Locke’s (1632 – 1704) theory of rights proposed the idea that people established civil society as a way to resolve conflicts within a system that should protect life, health, liberty and possessions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) wrote On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Rights (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique) to explore whether there can be a legitimate political authority. The idea is that we each give up some freedoms and consent to be governed. Rousseau thought that the law should be the expression of the general will of all people (also understood by him as the Rule of Law). By joining together into civil society individuals can “both preserve themselves and remain free”.

In New Zealand we have a special situation: Economist Brian Easton writing in 1994 argued that New Zealand, more so than many countries, has an explicit social contract in the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document as well as in other legislation such as the Social Security Act of 1938. Easton wrote “the universalism we expect in our social security, health, and education arises because the contract involves a tradeoff between everyone contributing to the support of the welfare state, and thereby receiving reciprocal benefits when they are in need”.

(see http://www.publicgood.org.nz/2014/05/30/the-social-contract/)

Clearly in New Zealand we have an expectation on each other to follow a set of laws and the like, set by national and local governments that we elect. But it’s no surprise we are seeing a decline in the proportion of us that vote – the sense of a contract between the government and the people is deeply broken.

Child poverty figures published recently by the Children’s Commissioner make it very clear that our government has limited interest in delivering the protection side of the bargain, unless public opinion, media pressure or fiscal cost drive it to do so. The state of the available housing for citizens most in need of that protection is so run-down that, in a classic of short-term siloed thinking, the housing itself generates significant costs for the health system.

So much as we love new ideas, here’s a not-so new one that remains just as valid as it has ever been. We live in a time of great disruption, uncertainty and contradiction.

To get through, we need a government that sees New Zealand as its people – he tangata – diverse, sometimes troublesome, sometimes critical, sometimes supportive, but always he tangata.

We are more than the economy, the deficit, and the “flag debate”.