Responding to the winds of change

First published in Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand, December 2016. Reposted with permission.

My personal reflections on the last 12 months?

Sometimes, for what seems like ages, it can look like nothing much will ever change in the world. Then along comes a year where it’s as if someone has hit fast forward. Things are changing so quickly you wonder what could happen next.

Looking back from the cusp of the New Year, it appears to me that 2016 has been one of these times of rapid change.

It’s not just Donald Trump. Dissatisfaction with the status quo has boiled over in a series of world events which have disrupted “business as usual”, even in far-flung New Zealand.

Faced with rapid change, people have a choice. They try to can carry on, as if nothing’s different. Or they can think afresh, and come up with new ideas to fit the new reality.

‘A strange figure’

Sadly, our Government this year has chosen the former. Prime Minister John Key cut a strange figure on the world stage in November, continuing to promote the harmful Trans- Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), long after most other people in the room knew it was dead.

He and his ministers also continue to trot out the old mantra of tax cuts, rather than think anew about restoring investment to fully fund our creaking health and social services.

In a peculiar turn, voters are even telling the pollsters they no longer want tax cuts. In the past, the Government could perhaps reply that it was acting in accordance with advice on tax cuts from overseas experts. But the world has moved on here, too, leaving our tax-cutting politicians behind.

At times like these, nurses have a special opportunity – and responsibility – to bring forth the new ideas that are needed.

The winds of change

Our American sister union, National Nurses United (NNU), felt the winds of change sooner than most. In August 2015, they became the first major union to endorse Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders for United States (US) president. Echoing Sanders, NNU executive director RoseAnn Demoro observed, “This is not a conventional moment, we are fighting for the future of this country”.

“Caring, compassion, and community. These are the values at the heart of registered nursing”, said NNU. “This is true at the bedside, as nurses advocate for patients and families – and also beyond the walls of the hospital, as RNs call for environmental, racial, and economic justice in the name of public health.”

Sanders’ embrace of a “democratic socialist” label would, in any normal year, have consigned him to America’s political fringes and electoral oblivion. The fact he came such a close second in the primary contest, after winning 13 million votes (43 percent of the total) underscores just how far from “a conventional moment” 2016 has been.

Despite considerable pressure, NNU stuck to its position, even after Hillary Clinton was chosen by the Democratic Party to be its candidate. NNU’s conviction that it was in tune with the rapidly changing times was, as DeMoro put it, because “nurses take the pulse of America, and have to care for the fallout of every social and economic problem”.

When Trump secured victory after a divisive campaign, NNU ruefully observed, “This election is a reminder that in a populist moment of people yearning for change, it was not a moment for business as usual, establishment politics. If Senator Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic candidate, we would be looking at a very different outcome today.”

Although it’s largely external events which have so far disrupted business as usual in New Zealand, similar winds of change are also blowing here. Asked in a poll to choose between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, New Zealanders favoured Sanders by a margin of 10 to one.

But, equally, the channelling of dissatisfaction towards new migrants and other minorities is also starting to appear.

NZNO is at the forefront of some of the new thinking that’s needed. The day after the US election sealed the fate of the TPPA, kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku and I wrote to government support partner, United Future leader Peter Dunne, asking him to withdraw his support for the TPPA enabling-legislation. A single vote would have been enough to prevent pointless changes to 11 of New Zealand’s laws, based on a trade agreement that was dead in the water.

But I think we need to do more updating, because one conclusion I draw from these reflections on the year is that “business as usual” is a recipe for failure in rapidly changing times.

Personally, I agree with the NNU that now, “the agenda for real transformative change of our broken political and economic system is the only way to protect our nation and our planet.”

At this month’s board of directors’ meeting, I will be asking the board to start a strategic discussion about our changing environment, and how we might collectively reposition our organisation in 2017 for the new realities that 2016 has brought. •

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