No doubt you’re a fan of the annual Christmas message from the Queen to her minions in the antipodes, so I thought – hoped – you would be similarly interested in a short, heartfelt message from one of your own.
Let me tell you, John, a little about my Christmases growing up. We lived on a sheep and beef farm in the central north island – your real “meat and three veg” kind of family. Christmas was always a busy time on the farm – sheep to be shorn, baleage to feed out, maybe a little summer drenching to be done. We couldn’t go away far because someone still needed to be home to move the stock and feed the dogs so we would spend Christmas with either our grandparents, who lived about 20 minutes drive away, or at home with extended family.
On Christmas Day, we’d wake up, run to the Christmas tree and empty our respective pillowcases. Mum would put her CD of Boney M’s Greatest Christmas Hits on and we’d pass around the gifts. Dad would make a ham sandwich (again, the meat and three veg thing) and we’d sit around for a few hours playing with our new toys and eating Christmas chocolate. Family would come over for Christmas lunch, we’d pull bad jokes and funny hats from Christmas crackers, and eat ourselves into a stupor.
I hope you’re still reading, John, because so far this probably sounds like your average family Christmas. No doubt you know lots of farmers – after all, they are the ones for whom who happily weaken our ETS scheme and the ones you prioritise above all else in trade negotiations.
The thing is: this is by no means your average family Christmas in New Zealand. We live in a country where 270,000 children live in poverty. If there are gifts under the tree, it’s likely they were bought on hire purchase or on debt incurring astronomical levels of interest (something your government opted not to cap in a recent bill). There may be food on the table, but it may mean in three weeks time there is not.
Recently you wrote (and I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here in thinking it was you and not one of your many speech writers) a heartfelt piece of your own in the New Zealand Herald’s John Kirwan special. You spoke about how bright the future is looking in this country’s young people. You spoke of what your government is doing to ensure that future: national standards, ultra-fast broadband, and a commitment to addressing youth suicide. Not once in that piece did you mention child poverty, income inequality or even the disparity in the opportunities children in New Zealand face. Ultra-fast broadband is great, but it’s great for the kids sitting in class with their own, personal tablets and a teacher equipped for e-learning. It means nothing to a child who can’t concentrate because they are learning on an empty stomach, or who takes weeks off in a year due to sickness from living in a damp home, let alone the many children who have very limited access to technology in the school environment and none at home.
On Christmas morning, when mum was playing her carols, I remember how I used to hate the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. Age ten (so let’s put aside the very obvious critiques of that song for a moment), I hated the idea of people somewhere in the world going without at Christmas. At that age, I really did believe it was just starving children in Africa. I had no idea there were kids my age in New Zealand – in my community – going without. Why would I? The only people I knew were people like me: largely happy, carefree country kids living on huge plots of land they could call their own. It’s easy when you’re living in a multi-million dollar home in Parnell to do the same: to forget that your experience is not universal.
If I was painting my Christmas as idyllic and perfect, let me correct you now, John. Like many families, Christmas was tense and seeped in the kind of politeness usually reserved for interactions with strangers. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” could equally apply to an awkward family Christmas where half of the members of the table don’t as much as grunt each other, and loud, shrill chatter rings out to cover up the deep hurt and resentment sitting around the table.
As Prime Minister, you can’t change the fact that for many families Christmas will be a time of tension and stress. What you and your government can change is the stress that is caused by living in gross insecurity: be it because of high unemployment – especially among young people; poor education; crime, which destroys the communities of both those who offend and those who are offended against; addiction, including the kind of addiction your government sanctions through either action or inaction; housing, as people watch their communities be pulled apart and their homes pulled from under their feet; or poverty, something that exists regardless of whether we want to see it or not.
Merry Christmas, John. I hope you have a good one. And I hope, in the spirit of Christmas, something – anything – makes you stop to think about the many people in New Zealand whose Christmases you and your government have the potential to vastly improve.