Editorial 2: Bread – Not Circuses

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 39, Advent 2006

My friend recently went to a medical specialist regarding a growth under his cheekbone. After a series of tests the diagnosis was pretty alarming. He had cancer. Not only the parotid gland was affected. The disease had spread both north and south attacking the lymph nodes and spreading the cancer throughout the region. The prognosis was serious, but manageable. The specialist recommended radical surgery which would be conducted a week later. The reason for the quick access to surgery is that my friend has private medical insurance.

That night as he was relaying this news, he seemed remarkably upbeat about the whole business. ‘It is bad news. But I feel so privileged to be able to afford this operation through my insurance. It costs $15 000, you know.’ He went on to explain that the specialist had told him of two other men of similar age to himself who had been diagnosed that very day with similar symptoms. Neither had private insurance. Both were placed on the public waiting list. ‘They could well be dead by the time their turn comes,’ was my friend’s comment, ‘this thing moves pretty fast.’

At our Catholic Worker houses, we know from grim experience that readily available health care is not available to the poor except on a band-aid basis. We know from the media that waiting lists are culled whenever the money starts to run out. These are needy, sick individuals with families who are slipped off the lists. We appreciate that the sick lists are burgeoning as the population ages. And as medical expectations rise. But that is no excuse for not making a fully funded public health system an absolute priority for our country. We had one in the not-too-distant past.

This is not an advertisement for private medical insurance. On the contrary, here at the Catholic Worker we are strong supporters of a well-funded public health service. But clearly we are not getting it. True, many extra millions have been poured into the public health sector in the seven years of this government. But it is a government that has also had plenty of money to play with, posting surpluses of several billions of dollars on occasions.

More importantly, at the time of printing, it is a government which was prepared to squander between $500-900 million on a sports stadium in the heart of Auckland to host the Rugby World Cup final. That is where the surplus was going. That is partly why the two men put on a waiting list may die while they wait. They could well be dead by cup final time. I am hoping my friend won’t be.

It reminds me of the financial carry-on when we held the America’s Cup for yachting in the 1990s. One would have thought we were hosting the world soccer cup. Wall-to-wall media coverage. Propaganda at every turn. Tax-payer millions went into securing and attempting to hold the cup. Yet if there was ever an elitist sport which reflects all the worst aspects of avarice and self promotion, it is the America’s Cup.

And so to the Rugby World Cup. The public are being softened up to expect huge benefits to everybody as a result of our hosting it in 2011. To question the propaganda almost feels unpatriotic. But who exactly benefits? The sports-loving minority does. Fair enough. Major businesses probably will. Even niche businesses may. But research shows that often the estimated economic projections touted by government and sports officials are grossly exaggerated. For example, the economic benefits to Australia from the Sydney Olympics and the last rugby world cup were far less than the government and the business community had predicted. (The Press, 15 November 2006)

The question needs to be asked. Why isn’t the NZ Rugby Union, in conjunction with the Auckland Rugby Union, paying for the building of the Auckland stadium? They have been raking in money for decades from crowded Super 12 and 14 matches, from tests, from Ranfurly Shield games. How come they can’t afford to pay for their own world cup? Why are taxpayers forking out millions when most are not even interested in rugby? Most have no stake in it at all. Only the Rugby Union and some businesses will benefit from the tournament. Let them pay for it. The $175m from government for Eden Park could well be spent in healthcare.

As long as lengthy hospital waiting lists condemn people to needless pain, anxiety and premature death and we don’t have ready access to a good public health system, then the government needs to use its tax dollars for what is best for the common good. We need bread, not circuses. Good health is bread. Rugby tournaments are circuses

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