NZ not immune to division: New report warns COVID-19 pandemic and Christchurch terror attack putting country's social cohesion under pressure

A new report warns New Zealand isn't immune to division and says the COVID-19 pandemic and Christchurch terror attack have put the country's social cohesion under pressure. 

The report, Sustaining Aotearoa New Zealand as a cohesive society, was produced by Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland.

The authors Sir Peter Gluckman, Dr Anne Bardsley, Professor Paul Spoonley, Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, Naomi Simon-Kumar, and Dr Andrew Chen warn New Zealand is experiencing a 'perfect storm' of multiple and significant economic, social, environmental, and technological transformations. 

The report points to crises over the past few years including natural disasters, the Christchurch terror attack and the COVID-19 pandemic as testing the country's cohesion and exacerbating existing challenges around working together. 

It warns these events present serious challenges to the behavioural, social and civic institutions that underpin social cohesion. 

"New Zealand is generally seen as a relatively cohesive society, but it is not immune to division, and there are warning signs," the authors say.

"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." 

New Zealand has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world with 89 percent of eligible people fully vaccinated. 

But gaps have popped up within that data with the Māori vaccination rate trailing behind with just 74 percent of the eligible Māori population fully vaccinated. 

Protests over lockdowns and vaccine mandates have also been increasing over the past month. 

Director of Koi Tū Sir Peter warns the long-term impacts of COVID-19 will amplify existing inequalities and has highlighted certain groups' lack of trust in the Government. 

"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.

Co-author Dr Royal agrees, warning social cohesion is complex and comes down to trust, which is lacking for some groups. 

"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 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.

The report highlighted events such as climate change, ecological degradation, demographic change and global power shifts as threats to the country's social cohesion. 

"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." 

Sir Peter says in order to strengthen and maintain our social cohesion we need to support an enhanced and robust fourth estate and develop a new democratic process that encourages informed debate across society.

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

Co-author Professor Spoonley says New Zealand also needs to look at social cohesion 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."