Worth a look: Ruth, Roger and Me

Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies.

Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies

Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies

by Jem Yoshioka

Reading Ruth, Roger and Me was like reading about myself.

While I have always been conscious of how politics have shaped my education and life, the history Andrew Dean discusses shows just how strong the connection is. Having this part of our political history laid out so plainly in this 108-page book helps to illustrate how many people the reforms of the 80s and 90s impacted, and the long-term effects decades-old decisions have had on the ideology of the nation.
The movement towards neoliberal ideology has been happening in New Zealand since the mid-1970s, but intensified around the 1991 budget. This budget is the foundation that Dean comes back to throughout the book, expanding on the long-lasting impacts across our country from student loans; to unemployment; to education; to the housing crisis. Dean discusses how these decisions have increased inequality, creating a rift in generations and widening the division between the privileged and less privileged in our society.

I have had to read the book in small bursts, needing to take a breather almost after every paragraph to let my anger and frustration dissipate. Dean discusses how the very clearly structured ideologically driven change has permanently impacted on many New Zealanders, especially people in marginalised communities. These changes were designed by the same people who still hold positions of relative power and safety today, and who are still seeing benefits to themselves and their peers from these changes even while poverty increases and people are left with crushing debt.

Dean describes the effects of “The children of the mother of all budgets”, and the way that this shift in politics has disenfranchised and isolated young people while placing more of the country’s wealth with the already wealthy. The flaws within a “market-driven economy” are laid bare, showing that when you structure for profit you do so at the expense of people’s health, education, and even their lives.

I was impressed with the way Dean handled his interviews with Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. These two people, who have strongly opposed views to Dean’s, are presented with clarity and respect. He takes time to ensure their statements are fully supported by their reasoning, even when he himself personally disagrees. Dean discusses how Richardson came to embody a certain ideology to him during his time in education, recognising her impact and how it ripples across government policy. It’s refreshing to hear in Richardson’s own words why she was so invested in such heavy cuts, helping to turn her from an economic legacy into a complex human being. It doesn’t make me any less angry about the effects, but it does help me to understand her better.

My favourite concept in the book was the explanation of positive and negative freedoms. A positive freedom is a freedom to do something and a negative freedom is a freedom from something. Negative freedoms are the ones most often talked about and cited in right-wing politics. Freedom from market restrictions is supposed to be good for people, but in practice it is only good for people who are in a privileged position and can take advantage of it.

Dean concludes with a poignant reflection on aroha and community, showing that we are at our best and most powerful when we support each other.

Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies. Published April 2015. Publisher Bridget Williams Books. Available in print or as an ebook.