The Hikoi of Hope
An interview with Stephanie McIntyre, Anglican Social Responsibility Commissioner, who helped coordinate a march to protest the New Zealand government's policies toward the poor.
Wellington, New Zealand
The Hikoi was organized by the Anglican Church in New Zealand. Share International interviewed Stephanie McIntyre, the Anglican Social Responsibility Commissioner and one of the National co-ordinators for the Hikoi.
Share International : Where did the idea for the ‘Hikoi of Hope’ originate?
Stephanie McIntyre: It came out of New Zealand’s social and economic performance over the last 15 years. Particularly in the early 1990s there were some significant changes in social policy, such as benefit cuts and changes in housing. Since then we have seen rapid deterioration in peoples’ standard of living. Those who are at the bottom of the economic heap have been facing deteriorating health, employment, and education conditions. We had two slogans for the Hikoi of Hope. One was'Enough is enough!' and another was 'Walk for Change.' 'Enough is enough' quite simply came out of the despair that our social agencies were experiencing.
Within the Anglican Church, we have three ethnic groupings that have autonomy but are equal partners, three autonomous Tikanga. Their elective members come together every two years at the General Synod. At the May 1998 meeting, the social transformation grouping put forward a resolution that we state our unhappiness with the anticipated cuts in sickness benefits which were going to happen that very week. These cuts were actually going to take money away from people who did not have sufficient resources to live on already. When the debate for that resolution came up, person after person expressed how they were feeling about the deteriorating living standards among low-income New Zealanders. And through the course of the evening, the concept of the Hikoi emerged as an indication of the significant role that Tikanga Maori play in the Anglican Church.
SI: What did the Hikoi hope to achieve?
SM: It hoped to highlight the extent of the growth of poverty in New Zealand. We have a paucity of social monitoring. For example, we don’t have a defined poverty line as other developed nations do. We have had no study on whether our benefit levels are adequate to be lived on. We don’t have adequate research into whether housing is affordable or too expensive. A series of conservative governments have been able to pass off economic hardship as pockets of social disparity. It is our conviction that it is much more pervasive. The Hikoi set out to get more agreement about the size and scale of the poverty problem, and to get people thinking and talking about how unbearable the situation is. I think we achieved that.
Secondly, we set out to put weight behind the public call for a change in government policy. That is a much slower process. You do not get change overnight. But the call for policy change has been sent out. The third goal was to meet the people’s need for hope. There are some interesting stories circulating. One person who wrote a piece about the Hikoi said for him "it was a ritual of healing and empowerment". It brought hope both to the people who are hurting, to the Rara Kore, the dispossessed, and to the people who are working at the front line of social service agencies who are ‘burnt out’. It brought hope to people who felt as if there has not been much response to the negative reform process that we have had in New Zealand. The Hikoi was significant in helping people think: "Yes, we actually can take this on. We can make change." And there is something cathartic just in sharing your stories, as many people did every evening on the march.
SI: What was your experience of the public response to the walk along the way?
SM: Mostly very, very positive. Whenever we were out on the road, there was a great response in terms of tooting car horns, that sort of thing, and very good support from regional newspapers, who gave good coverage. But there were also negative letters in the newspapers. There were also a lot of people who were critical, and the media gave us a hammering in that respect.
SI: Is there any indication that politicians have a genuine awareness of the suffering in society that was expressed through the Hikoi?
SM: It is difficult to believe that the government MPs could have. We are continuing to see policies that would indicate that it is not the case. For example, cuts in benefits happened simultaneously with the arrival of the Hikoi. Cuts to voluntary-sector groups by the government occurred just recently. But we have had some positive responses from opposition MPs who, I think, are more convinced of the reality of poverty in New Zealand.
SI: What has followed from the handing over of the ‘ketes’ to the representatives of the various political parties?
SM: The ketes, which is a Maori term for a small woven flax basket, contained the collation of about 200 pages of people’s stories of their suffering. We have received acknowledgements of those presentations, more from opposition than government MPs. We are now about to follow up these presentations with some visits, for example to the Prime Minister. That will be an opportunity for us to ask "What did you make of these stories?" and "What are you going to do about them?" This year, there will be some further regional meetings with members of the parliament.
SI: What do you think are some of the personal and collective lessons learned from this experience?
SM: One is that we could actually do something like this. A lot of things were thrown at us to try and deflect us from this effort. The media were also looking for something that would destabilize it. There were a lot of people hoping it would not actually come to anything. We have also learned that we are correct in our assessment of public opinion. There is a huge groundswell of dissatisfaction out there. The other lesson is that we just have to keep going. We cannot stop here. That means not just the Anglican Church, but other groups as well, have to keep the pressure on for change.
SI: Where does this effort go from here?
SM: A delegation will go to the Prime Minister and to the other party leaders to reiterate the message that there is an unbearable level of poverty out there, and that we must have some changes to deal with it. We are also working on a strategy for regional meetings, or hui, when members of parliament will be invited to put their policies before the public. That will be open to all people, not just Anglicans.
SI: Do you think the present government has the answers to the questions that the Hikoi raised, or do you think we need a complete change?
SM: This present government is highly unlikely to come forward with the policies that the Hikoi was expressing the need for. These are contrary to the sort of direction they are taking, and their ideology. I think it is clear that the majority of New Zealanders think it is time for a change of government. At that point, we will still have to advocate for the poor, regardless. There are good indications already. The community sector and the churches have been approached by opposition MPs on how we can work toward a better partnership.
SI: There seems to be growing dissatisfaction among people in other countries towards their government, as in Asia for example. Do you think this dissatisfaction is a manifestation of the same frustration as inspired the Hikoi?
SM: Yes, definitely. We have been promised in New Zealand that the ‘trickle down’ theory of economics would work. What actually has happened is increasing social disparity. That’s been occurring in developing nations as well. The ‘Roundtree Report’ came out in 1996, and described New Zealand as the developed country with the fastest-growing gap between rich and poor. People have become frustrated. Because we are in touch with our Maori partners who are in a completely different socio-economic situation from the wealthy, white Anglicans, we have heard many stories of frustration and despair. However, it is not just Maori who have a problem with poverty. Two out of three people in poverty in New Zealand are Pakeha (European).
SI: Were there any remarkable experiences that you or anyone you know had on the Hikoi?
SM: One man on the walk said a lot of the people walking were quite poor and had very inadequate footwear. He said he would always have this image of a man limping along, arm-in-arm with a grandmother, also on the walk, helping each other up the steps. This man’s shoes just collapsed. Another woman saw that his shoes had fallen to bits and presented him with a pair that she had been given somewhere else that fitted him perfectly. This is a small moment, but quite significant. From my point of view, the remarkable experience was the diversity of people coming together for a common goal.
Having the liturgy as the final event when we got to Parliament — praying, reading the Bible, singing, and delivering spiritual messages — was an amazing celebration of who we are and how we do things. Tikanga, the partnership, came through.
From the January/February 1999 issue of Share International