Sustaining social cohesion in Aotearoa New Zealand

We can’t ignore the warning signs that social cohesion is under threat in Aotearoa New Zealand, say researchers.

A new report Sustaining Aotearoa New Zealand as a cohesive society produced by Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, says the challenge of social cohesion is becoming increasingly critical and more research and policy development is needed to help sustain it.

The authors Sir Peter Gluckman, Dr Anne Bardsley, Professor Paul Spoonley, Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, Naomi Simon-Kumar, and Dr Andrew Chen say we are experiencing a ‘perfect storm’ of multiple and significant economic, social, environmental, and technological transformations. These present serious challenges to the behavioural, social and civic institutions that underpin social cohesion.

Acute crises over recent years such as natural disasters, the Christchurch terror attacks and the pandemic have further tested our individual, community and national resilience and have exacerbated the challenges of how we work together as a community and a nation.

The report – which outlines a framework for exploring social cohesion in an Aotearoa New Zealand context – is part of Koi Tū’s ongoing work looking at what makes societies cohesive and resilient. The report covers why social cohesion is critically important, its history and how societies have evolved. It looks at how social cohesion is related to trust between citizens and the State, and among each other in increasingly diverse societies, as well as how the internet and new media challenge cohesion.

The authors say: “New Zealand is generally seen as a relatively cohesive society, but it is not immune to division, and there are warning signs. While there is relatively high trust in the institutions of government, the response to the vaccination effort has illustrated that trust is not universal and can be eroded.

“Aotearoa New Zealand, especially Auckland, is already amongst the most ethnically diverse societies in the world. The nature of our populations has changed rapidly. The issues we confront have become clearer but also more challenging. The resolution of what it means to be a ‘Kiwi’ is still evolving.”

Sir Peter, Director of Koi Tū and the President of the International Science Council, say the longer-term consequences of Covid-19 will amplify many existing inequalities such as growing economic inequalities, educational disadvantage and the digital divide.

“It has highlighted issues of trust in government, frustration in some quarters over the consequences of government-imposed controls, and is likely to have long term impacts on mental health and education,” he says.

The report says: “We are living in a world of accelerating and unrelenting change… Climate warming, ecological degradation, demographic change, global power shifts, the transformation of economies, and trends in the use and misuse of technology are all placing compounding pressure on individuals, societies, and their governance institutions. Societies only function well when they exhibit a level of cohesiveness that allows them to work for the mutual benefit of all their diverse members, despite differing world views, identities, and values. Societal well-being therefore depends on maintaining social cohesion.”

Dr Royal (Marutūahu, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngā Puhi), Strategic Advisor and a member of Koi Tū, agrees social cohesion comes down to trust – a concept that is complex and nuanced.

“For communities to function well, to cooperate and collaborate to achieve things of value, trust is required between individuals and between individuals and institutions. What motivates and sustains trust? Māori communities are challenged by the question of trust as much as anyone else. Māori trust in the Government, for example, has long been tempered by the negative effects of colonisation for which Māori hold the Government accountable. There are also significant internal trust challenges within the Māori world – trust in ourselves and trust in each other,” he says.

Professor Spoonley says several decades ago the concept of social cohesion was mainly considered through the lens of immigration and the impacts of population diversity. Today, he says, social cohesion needs to be considered as something much more encompassing especially within the context of our obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“We need to understand social cohesion through a very Aotearoa lens and recognise our social cohesion needs will be different from any other country. Social cohesion is always a work in progress. It’s not something you achieve at any given point because context and the issues change.”

Sir Peter says solutions to strengthening or maintaining social cohesion include supporting an enhanced and robust fourth estate, as well as developing new democratic processes that encourage informed debate across society.

“We must understand collectively what might undermine our social cohesion and what we can do to enhance it,” he says.

The report is available here.

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