Bruce Jesson Lecture 2013
“Assertive, if not aggressive approach” called for by the Right Hon Sir Edmund Thomas
Retired Court Appeal Judge the Right Hon Sir Edmund Thomas (pictured right – from 3 News) called for an “assertive, if not aggressive approach” by communities and community groups; to reverse the extreme inequality that currently exists in Aotearoa New Zealand. He was speaking to a packed Maidment Theatre in Auckland, late October.
HPF Health Strategist Dr Ieti Lima was in the audience and reports on some of Sir Edmund’s key points to support his argument.
Call for “sufficient force”
In his powerful, engaging and, at times, challenging lecture, Sir Edmund proposed a focussed campaign to promote substantive human rights. He further called for “sufficient force” to ensure people claim the minimal social, economic and cultural standards to which they have a right. Sir Edmund asserted that, if the governing bodies or the courts cannot generate the required assertive approach to support people’s rights, the community must initiate the action needed. “Discussion and debate will not suffice,” he said. “This legacy is now too entrenched to be so readily reversed.”
Neo-liberalism at the heart of the problem
Sir Edmund was unequivocal in linking the “extreme – even obscene – inequality” that exists in Aotearoa New Zealand to the “traumatic neo-liberal transformation” that has been pursued here.
According to the retired judge, the top ten per cent of New Zealand’s population today owns half of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 50 per cent owns just five per cent of the wealth.
He pointed to Maori health statistics as appalling, and declared that he finds “the neglect of a people socially and culturally offensive.”
So how has this gross inequality been tolerated in a country that once prided itself on its egalitarian culture and sense of social justice? Sir Edmund’s explanation was blunt; it has been fostered and sustained by the rich and powerful, to perpetuate their own wealth and privilege. Sir Edmund argued that the term ‘equality’ is today more often than not defined in terms of equality of opportunity. By suggesting that all people have the same opportunity, the term obscures the true extent of inequality within the community. If this definition remains, it simply provides the opportunity for those in an advantaged position to further advance their superiority and privilege.
“This perspective of equality in turn impairs social mobility,” he said. “The disadvantaged are stuck with being disadvantaged. … It becomes a vicious circle”.
Neo-liberalism – according to Sir Edmund – is a theory that insists human well-being can best be advanced by ensuring strong property rights, free enterprise, free market and free trade. He identified eight features of the neo-liberal legacy:
Assertive action by community groups
- Values directed by economic order
- Governmental intervention
- Trade unions
- Social justice
Sir Edmund challenged his audience to consider who will speak for “losers” in a capitalistic society? How can they be guaranteed their basic economic, social and cultural human rights? He proposed that a first step in any campaign to achieve a more equal and just society is to identify and challenge the damaging features of neoliberalism. Ultimately the aim is to arrest and reverse them.
In the absence of legal options to redress the inequalities, Sir Edmund called on a focussed campaign by community groups. “They [must] possess sufficient force for people to claim that the minimum social, economic and cultural standards they reflect are theirs as of right”.
Sir Edmund was the speaker at the annual Bruce Jesson 2013 at the Maidment Theatre, University of Auckland. He is a retired Court of Appeal Judge and former acting judge of the Supreme Court. His lecture was made to a mainly academic audience.
Author: Dr Ieti Lima
Editor: Jo Lawrence-King