Opinion: Want to see Government change? First you must engage

There is nothing like a global pandemic to jolt people back to the reality that the power Governments wield is real, and the actions they take can have a considerable impact on the way we live our lives.

Some believe governments exist to regulate opportunity and growth, while others believe it is to provide parameters for our behaviour and wellbeing. Regardless of what you believe the role of Government should be, they all tax, penalise, restrict, and regulate their people.

Over the past 20 months we have experienced some of the biggest restrictions and regulations in modern history. This has seen limitations on our liberties and the power balance in our country shift in favour of the state. How do we know this to be true? Talk to any hospitality or retail business forced to close their shop front at Alert Level 4 & 3 and ask how they feel to see their revenue splinter, through no fault of their own.

Restriction on liberties can be necessary of course, especially during a time of crisis. However a democracy, particularly one seeking its citizens to wilfully volunteer up their liberties, only works when everyone can participate. Participation has long been in favour of the state. That is to say, the pendulum of engagement always swings toward the Crown. This is most pronounced in the failures of the state: because who is going to kick up about something that is widely considered a success? 

Take the bigger end of business in Aotearoa, in particular industries that are highly regulated. The majority of these entities have entire teams dedicated to government engagement. They are usually well heard, and heard often. Contrast this with a small business voice, who have manifestly smaller resources in both time and money. That voice is comparably quiet. 

With COVID-19 still dominating our lives – and headlines – you could be forgiven for thinking that the Government’s engagement programme beyond the virus has halted: it has not. A number of considerable reforms remain active: resource management reform, electoral law reform, health reform. The new engagement challenge I see small businesses facing is BAU (business as usual) style advocacy, when our lives are nothing but. 

This means you must lobby smarter. Tap into all the resources available to you. Sign up to multiple pānui (newsletters) from sources of trusted information to keep across what engagement activities require your attention. Join organisations that can do the heavy lifting for you – the Newmarket Business Association is one of these. No Government has ever changed the direction it was heading because they heard through the grapevine that Joe and Marge disembowelled a policy over a brew. They respond to collective efforts, to reasoned argument, and active engagement. If you want to see change on the issues affecting you and your business, you must engage. 

One of the fundamental tensions that exists in a democracy is the idea that the Government realises the liberty and equality of its citizens yet can use its legitimate institutions and mechanisms to make decisions that effectively restrict liberties. If democracy only works when everyone participates then don’t be afraid to get engaged. Know the value of your voice: your democracy depends on it. 

Opinion by Holly Bennett (Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Pikiao), Kaitūhono Ariki – Principal Consultant, Awhi Founder, Engage. 

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