Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Uncap the budget


Two things that may seem unrelated, but aren’t: how we fund special needs education in public schools, and the axing of a current affairs show by a commercial television network. One is about how society draws on shared resources to look after its most vulnerable; the other is about capitalism and free enterprise, hence seemingly not the business of the public at all.

Last week I was asked to comment on the former after the budget announcement. Amy Jackman wrote a very good piece condensing a long conversation we had, following on from an earlier piece by Jo Moir. We used this picture that Justine took in our kitchen.


It is a privilege to speak to the media about these issues, but also a responsibility since by virtue of being there you end up implicitly representing other advocates as well. In a sector that struggles to organise for a variety of reasons, it can be harder for organisations than for individuals to be heard, partly because so many of them depend on government contracts to survive. This is what makes coalitions like the Inclusive Education Action Group – with their admirably staunch list of priorities – so valuable. Whenever I get the opportunity to speak, I try to keep their work and sense of shared purpose in mind.

The problem is this: when fighting for something as basic as a child’s right to access the same education system as her peers, you are pressured to reduce yourself to what seems possible or achievable in the short term. It is the nature of individual battles and the privatisation of need to make the broader horizon of social justice recede. And so when lobbying a politician or talking on the phone to a journalist, you say the thing you think they will be able to use. You let pragmatism take the place of idealism even though idealism may offer better (or even the only) solutions.

At the present time, it is radical to hold the belief that the budget for such items of public expenditure as special education shouldn’t be capped until such time as the rights provided for in law are guaranteed, or else those rights would be meaningless. Conversely, mainstream thinking holds that children with disabilities should have to compete with one another for an arbitrary number of education vouchers granting them special status and first dibs at the limited pool of resources.

My thoughts on which of those two propositions is manifestly crazy don’t matter. Because our reality is that we have to work within the current system to survive, we can only see improvement in what will make survival easier. This typically means: more resources, more money. But perversely, to extend an inequitable school voucher to more children – as the National party has done in last week’s budget – entrenches the inequity further. The voucher is not a guarantee of the right to an education: it’s a progressively shrinking ‘contribution’ towards receiving some education. Making more children invested in it may alleviate hardship but is no solution.

And so my proposal, hesitant as I am to offer it in front of bigger audiences, is to uncap the budget. Stop forcing families to compete with one other for whose kids are the neediest in our local version of the Hunger Games. Currently most of our efforts and I suspect a very large chunk of our money goes into making sure that nobody gets too much (which is to say, what they need), and that everyone is discriminated equally. This is what makes us look at disabled children as the problem, and not at the school system as disabling. We have it exactly backwards.

Do it the other way, then. Look in all children – regardless of their ability – for any obstacles that may prevent them from learning alongside their peers. Establish what is required to remove those obstacles, ranging from nothing at all to complex interventions and specialist help. Apply for the support to a Ministry that trusts your professional judgment, if you’re a teacher, or your knowledge of the child, if you’re a parent or caregiver. Do a pilot study. See what it takes. Why is this so hard? I honestly suspect that we would find that such a system costs less money to run.


Historically within capitalist societies the education system has been one of the few available spaces for utopian thinking, and the ideal that schools should allow children to thrive in spite of socio-economic disadvantage dies hard even in countries that have sacrificed most other notions of the public good to radical free market ideology. This ideal hasn’t been extended to disabled children until more recent times, but is available to us. It furnishes us with the illusion that a just society is possible, if only in the form of giving citizens an equal opportunity to pursue profit as adults. Yet even this space is under constant attack, its imaginative and material horizons made narrower each day by the demands of capital.

This is where I think that the cancellation of Campbell Live offers some parallels. So long as John Campbell was allowed to work, one might cultivate a residual illusion that the sensational levels of commercialisation of broadcasting in New Zealand might not be totally incompatible with producing public service journalism. Reinforcing this illusion was the fact that the show was profitable, which gave it in the eyes of many – perhaps not unreasonably – a right to exist. The trouble, as Russell Brown has argued in part and most recently here, is that it was not profitable enough for the kind of return that its highly leveraged vulture fund ownership required. To achieve those rates the show would have had to become a better lead-in for commercial dross that is cheap to produce and easy to sell to advertisers. This is how we got to executives chiding Campbell for focussing excessively on the Christchurch rebuild or Pike River , thereby inducing – in their extraordinary, actual words – ‘viewer fatigue’.

When the show’s review was first announced, I counselled against the Peter Pan-like belief that the show might be saved if only we all promised to watch it more. Vulture funds don't care about ethical consumers, if such a thing even exists. Yet the campaign and the surge in viewership still mattered, for it dispelled the notion that Campbell Live was axed because it wasn't popular. It was doing in fact tremendously well, and against the considerable odds of its own network refusing to promote it and pulling its sponsors. It just couldn't be saved because under the runaway commercial imperatives of our networks doing good journalism and turning a profit isn't enough.

The cancellation of Campbell Live is but the latest, concrete manifestation of how capital eats away at the public sphere. Like the fallout from Dirty Politics, it should galvanise our efforts to reconstruct and expand that sphere – not for the sake of progress, but of survival.



Speaking of the prospects of critical writing (ahem), the special Aotearoa edition is complete and will launch at Vic Books in Wellington from 5.30pm on June 4. You can admire Marian Maguire's stunning cover here, peek at the contents here, or join the Facebook event here. Lots more details to come. 

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