Two aspects of life in New Zealand last month sent Catholics reeling towards Pope Francis’ stand on a preferential option for the poor – the sale of Mighty River Power shares and the shameful incidence of rheumatic fever among Northland children.
Rheumatic fever is almost eradicated in most other developed countries but has reached epidemic proportions in Northland, though Porirua has previously held the record for the highest incidence in the country. This disease is a clear indicator of socio-economic injustice – it is contracted by children living in crowded housing with poor access to health care and can result in lasting heart and lung damage.
The Child Poverty Action Group has called on the government to go further than its sore throats project in schools and boost access to health care for children. Such advocacy in the face of concrete facts is echoed in Catholic social teaching which demands that action on behalf of justice [for the poor] is seen as ‘a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel’ (Justice in the World 1971 #6).
Meanwhile thousands of New Zealanders have continued to make their views known about the government’s asset sales, the latest in Auckland last weekend. While Wel-Com does not want to support any particular political party, the idea of a central power-buying agency which the Greens and
Labour have devised may be a solution for those who continue to struggle to pay continuing high power bills.
Political commentator Gordon Campbell writes of energy traders in the privatised market of California taking power plants offline for maintenance on high use days to boost demand. Traders were then able to sell at up to 20 times the normal price. This price manipulation played a role in the California energy crisis of the mid-1990s which cost $40 billion to $45 billion to fix.
The California example goes to show that the pricing of electricity is far too important to be thrown over to the investment whims of a ‘free’ market that is open to price manipulation by a bunch of private investors who, if given the chance, will simply screw consumers into the ground.
So when Pope Francis calls for Catholics to be on the side of the poor, he is asking us to examine our own situations in light of the principles of social teaching that put the common good above all else.
We need to ask how this plan of Labour and the Greens would benefit the poor, those struggling against the conditions that produce rheumatic fever in children.
Then we must do what we can to advocate for a better deal for all – read up on the facts, discuss them with others and ask what we can do as a group. Let your local member of Parliament know how you feel and why. Spread the word. There is power in numbers, collaborating for a fairer society.