The government has moved forward with the ambitious task of building a more cohesive society, launching a new framework to measure wellbeing, connectedness and isolation
Priyanca Radhakrishnan had been a minister for just a month when she was given an impossible task at the end of 2020: to make New Zealand a society where everyone has a sense of belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition and of legitimacy.
In other words, his job was to build social cohesion in New Zealand, recognizing that no country can ever be fully socially cohesive.
“It’s ambitious,” she concedes in an interview with Newsroom. “It’s not like it was our frame, it’s what we decided and once we ticked everything off 100 per cent, we were done. I don’t think that will ever happen.”
But she thinks there is an opportunity to improve the situation in New Zealand. As it stands, according to a baseline report released by the Ministry of Social Development, only two-thirds of the country report a high level of trust in others. For Maori and Pasifika, this rate is less than 50%.
While the vast majority of New Zealanders say it’s easy to be themselves here, migrants, Asians, people with disabilities and LGBT people all said they were less comfortable expressing their identity.
Even before the pandemic, face-to-face contact with family and friends was decreasing and loneliness was increasing. Migrants and young people were more likely to report higher levels of loneliness. Maori break this trend, with high rates of interaction with whānau and communities.
This is just a fraction of a vast array of data gathered to establish the basis for social cohesion in New Zealand. The next update is scheduled for 2024, Radhakrishnan says.
“It gives us a clearer picture – bearing in mind that these are not things we can change in a very short time – areas where we see movement and where there may be less movement or we have to do a little more work.”
Regularly quantifying and measuring social cohesion was one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the March 15 terrorist attack. In fact, social cohesion is a major theme throughout the Royal Commission’s report.
“Social cohesion exists where people feel part of society, family and personal relationships are strong, differences between people are respected, and people feel safe and supported by others. Social cohesion is an ideal rather than a goal to be achieved and must continually be nurtured and grown,” the report states.
Radhakrishnan compares it to how the country came together after the terrorist attack.
“I went to quite a few open days in mosques at that time. People who had been living on these streets for 20 or 30 years and who didn’t even know there was a mosque there but who had come forward to lend their support,” she said.
“I’m hanging on to that. That’s what we want to work towards. We want, at the individual level, people to feel respected, valued, recognized for who they are and at the community level, we want the inclusion.”
The Royal Commission report acknowledges that social cohesion is more than an exercise in countering extremism – it is fundamental to “long-term prosperity” and political stability. But it also has aspects that naturally ward off extremism.
“Social cohesion can help prevent or counter extremism. Indeed, cohesive and resilient communities are better placed to resist and counter the risk of radicalization and mobilization towards violent extremism and terrorism,” the report states. .
“Tolerant and ideally inclusive societies are better able to address and prevent the polarization and disenfranchisement that can contribute to a rise in extremism.”
Despite this, the issue has received little public attention even as the government has embarked on a multi-faceted policy agenda to strengthen social cohesion. A consultation launched in June last year was overshadowed by the simultaneous launch of proposals to reform the hate speech law. But it was ultimately the work of social cohesion that was finalized first.
Radhakrishnan announced in October, before the two days of counter-terrorism in Auckland, the first version of a strategic framework for social cohesion. This was accompanied by the measurement framework and a fund for community initiatives.
But there is a limit to government involvement in social cohesion – you cannot legislate to create a socially cohesive society.
“You also don’t want to be social engineering things,” says Radhakrishan.
Concerns about government overreach come from two perspectives: members of minority communities who fear that social cohesion is a cover for assimilation, and those in privileged positions who fear losing their own rights.
“It’s about valuing diversity. By virtue of that, you value difference,” she says.
“It’s about the diversity of thoughts, perspectives, experiences that we can bring to the table where decisions are made. That means there will invariably be debate, there will be differences of opinion, there there will be disagreements – and that’s healthy, right? But we have to be able to do it in a way that improves mana and where you don’t put people down for their differences.”
It will also be led by individuals, communities and businesses, not just government.
“It’s a collective effort. There are things we can all do as individuals that will make people in other sectors or communities or groups feel included.”