Stand up and be counted

New Zealand ranks third highest in the English-speaking world on the Gini coefficient, a key global measure of inequality. How do we give the most marginalised people in our society a voice?

This was one of the many questions raised at Victoria’s first-ever Democracy Week in August, which provided a forum for students, staff, visiting experts and politicians to discuss some of the big issues facing contemporary democracy.

The issue of inequality surfaced in several sessions—including the under-representation of women in power and social inequality as a factor contributing to political disengagement.

In a panel called ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’, Professor Simon Jackman from the University of Sydney said that governments have reduced inequality in the past and could do so again.

“The levers to deal with anything that ails New Zealand with respect to inequality … are well within the reach of the existing political system,” said Simon during the discussion.

Professor Jack Vowles from Victoria’s School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations was one of the organisers of Democracy Week, which he says was an outstanding success.

Jack recently co-authored a book, A Bark But No Bite, which deals with the role inequality played in New Zealand’s 2014 general election.

He says inequality and disengagement are pressing issues in New Zealand that must be addressed in order to make government truly representative.

“We know that people who are adversely affected by inequality, such as the young and those on low incomes, are less likely to vote than those who are older and more prosperous.

“If you don’t vote, you don’t count. If those who suffer from the effects of inequality were to stand up and be counted, politicians on all sides would be more likely to pay attention to their needs.”