Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Stop de Kindermoord revisited. Is New Zealand now outperforming the Netherlands ?

Back in 2011 I wrote about the success of the Stop De Kindermoord (Stop Child Murder) campaign in the Netherlands. This presumably had been covered by English language press in the distant past, but by 2011 it had been forgotten about so my blog post got quite a lot of attention at the time and encouraged other people to write their own versions of the same story.

The success of that campaign helped lead to improved safety for all Dutch cyclists, not only children. We would likely not have the excellent go-everywhere grid of cycle-paths that we have now if not for the success of that campaigning. That campaign and the realisation that the most important thing that can be done for cycling is building a grid literally changed the landscape in this country, however we can never be complacent. What has changed once can change again.

People often wonder why it is that the Netherlands succeeded in cycling when other countries did not. Why NL acted to reduce child deaths when other countries did not. I think it was largely a matter of luck. The Netherlands happened to have the right leader at the right time.

Dutch schools are open again. Thanks in large part to the work of politicians 40+ years ago, children are relatively safe from traffic. But thanks to the ineffective leadership of our current politicians they're not being protected against infection with Covid-19 (which is an issue for this reason).

The same thing can be observed now as we face a different health crisis and this time it's in reverse. Covid-19 has caused not just a little more death in the Netherlands than in New Zealand, but literally three orders of magnitude more deaths per capita. This enormous difference is the result of policy. It can't be explained away in a simple manner such as differences in climate, that NZ is an island, the culture etc. While in the 1970s the Netherlands had effective leadership which reversed child deaths, this time it is the Netherlands with an ineffective leader in the shape of Mark Rutte while New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been highly effective. As a result, thousands of lives have been saved in New Zealand relative to the outcome that we have here.

Forty years ago this cycle-path was part of my route to school in New Zealand. It was never a perfect example and while it still exists it won't work as well as it once did because it's been divided into pieces.

While the Stop De Kindermoord protests were taking place in the Netherlands I was a schoolchild in New Zealand. In this blog post I will be comparing the response of both of these countries to two crises. But if you're not from either country, read on because this piece is not only about those two countries. 

My approximate route to school in 1980 (Google
maps doesn't use the cycle-path under the roundabout)
New Zealand's schools keep children safe by closing with
a much lower rate of Covid-19 infection than here in NL.

The fervour for cycling infrastructure and creating liveable communities was not limited to the Netherlands in the 1970s but was also quite significant internationally. I wrote some time ago about a housing development near my old home in the UK, but another example is a cycle-path which ran almost all the way from my home in New Zealand to my secondary school. It wasn't a great cycle-path, giving way to cars at every junction, but it was there. Dutch infrastructure being built around the same time was more sophisticated. But the main thing that made the Dutch cycle-paths worthwhile in the end was that they eventually formed part of a complete go-everywhere grid of routes while what was built elsewhere usually stood alone so was of limited use. In the case of the cycle-path which I used to use, it's obviously less useful now than it used to be because many more homes have been built in the area, with many more roads connecting them, so while motor traffic has increased the cycle-path, which never had priority over side-roads, now gives way even more than it used to. This is just one example of how higher population density does not automatically improve cycling conditions.

It was quite common for young New Zealanders to cycle to school in the 1970s and early 80s, but 50 years of excluding cycling from planning has left cycling at a very low level. When I used to cycle to school in NZ there was cycle parking. These days my old school looks like a big car park, which is rather sad.

1970s politics in New Zealand and the Netherlands
New Zealand's prime minister during the Stop de Kindermoord period was Robert Muldoon. Muldoon became Prime Minister in 1975 as leader of the right wing National party after a campaign which included use of an absurd animated film to imply that the opposition's plans to provide pensions were communism. Other advertisements were criticised for stoking up racism against Polynesians. Muldoon's Wikipedia bio says he was "a bully" and "an enigma" and lists, amongst other things, his promising to "get tough" on immigration, arrests and deportations of Pacific Islanders (including the "Dawn Raids"), pushing of "law & order", causing an opposition leader to resign by accusing him of being homosexual (this lead to a police investigation because homosexuality was illegal), supporting links with Apartheid South Africa, supporting American nuclear weapons in New Zealand's waters against mass opposition, and vastly exaggerating the benefits of his pet "Think Big" projects which over-ran their budgets so much that they resulted in the country running up a large deficit and having to impose a wage freeze. The pension scheme which Muldoon pushed (instead of the one criticized in the animation) also turned out to be extremely expensive, reducing the funds available for other things, such as (my) education. Unfortunately, New Zealanders kept re-electing Muldoon until 1984. He was eventually removed from his position only after he called a snap election while "visibly drunk".

Joop den Uyl, car-free Sunday in 1973
Just before Robert Muldoon took power in New Zealand, Joop den Uyl became Prime Minster of the Netherlands. Den Uyl began with the difficult job of telling the public that "things would never return to how they had been" as he implemented fuel rationing and a ban on Sunday motoring. His cabinet then had to deal with a weak economy, but many progressive social reforms were made. These included increased welfare payments, indexation of benefits, rent rebates and a minimum wage, equal pay for men and women and financial support for companies who employed people with disabilities. A specific piece of legislation provided for people for whom "it is difficult to find employment and who have been in prolonged unemployment", providing worthwhile work and status in the community for people who otherwise find this difficult to achieve. Specific protection was also introduced to help long term unemployed people who had reached 60 years of age, and job protection was introduced for women who were pregnant reaching until 12 weeks after childbirth. Entitlement to orphans' pensions was extended to illegitimate children "whose mothers are dead and who have not been recognised by their fathers", schools were given more freedom to set their own curriculum, the length of compulsory education was increased and the use of Asbestos was restricted.

Den Uyl was succeeded in 1977 by Dries van Agt. Van Agt led a coalition of right wing parties for the next four years but found that spending could not be cut because he had only a slim majority and there was much public protest, so most policies continued as before. Some ministers resigned from his cabinet over not being able to pursue an austerity policy. Another minister resigned on a point of morals because the cabinet did not condemn the US decision to develop the neutron bomb. Van Agt has more recently taken an outspoken stance on the situation in Palestine. Van Agt's Wikipedia page also points out that he is known "for his love for cycling".

I think there's an obvious pattern here. The policies which were pursued by den Uyl's, and later van Agt's, governments were not the same as those which were pursued by Muldoon's government. So far as cycling is concerned, the Netherlands became the world's leading country, while in New Zealand cycling dropped to a very low level.

2020s politics in New Zealand and the Netherlands
New Zealand's minister for women until November 2020,
Julie Genter, cycled to hospital to have her baby.

We now have the opposite situation. With Jacinda Ardern it is New Zealand which has an inclusive and progressive leader. Quite apart from her excellent handling of the Covid crisis (strong control of borders and excellent messaging have helped to keep the total deaths to just 27), her government has also brought in strict gun laws in response to right wing racist terrorism, addressed a housing crisis, child poverty and social inequality, declared a climate emergency ("my generation's nuclear-free moment"), formally apologised for the Dawn Raids, and this government also finally legalized abortion. Same-sex marriage was legalized before Ardern took power, and she supported it. I've not been able to find a photo of Ardern riding a bicycle, but she has supported the idea of (at last) enabling cyclists to cross Auckland Harbour Bridge and she does wear earrings made of old bicycle innertubes. There is a huge contrast between the policies of Muldoon and Ardern.

And now we consider the Netherlands in 2021. Mark Rutte has been Prime Minister since 2010. Rutte leads a right leaning coalition which has repeatedly tried to pursue immunity through infection as a way out of the Covid crisis. This has led to 30000 Covid-19 deaths in this country so far (CBS excess mortality figures), many people suffering from long covid, many businesses being affected adversely. While other outdoor festivals and similar events were completely banned, this car-obsessed government allowed 70000 people to gather to watch Formula One racing a couple of weeks ago and this combined with the frustration caused by how long this whole thing has been allowed to go on has led to a near total breakdown of people actually respecting the few measures which remain in place. Lots of money was made available for support during Covid, but almost all of it was absorbed by large companies such as Schiphol Airport and KLM. Apart from Covid, this government has also presided over the disastrous "toeslagenaffaire" in which tens of thousands of parents, largely from immigrant backgrounds, were falsely accused of fraud by the government and required to pay back the money they had received to live on. This government has also had relatively minor scandals such as a minister forced out after he didn't bother going through the same channels as normal people have to when they renovate a building. The cabinet fell on the 15th of January when we had our elections, but the same people have been limping along as a caretaker government since that date while they try to form a new coalition without any progressive elements.

I don't like Mark Rutte very much, but I have to admit that none of this sounds quite so awful as Robert Muldoon. Mark Rutte does actually ride a bike, but his party is far more interested in cars.

There is again an obvious pattern. New Zealand's extremely good outcome is the result of excellent leadership. The Netherlands failed against Covid because our leader failed to understand what was going on and then tried to take shortcuts. As a result, the Netherlands is amongst the worst performing countries with Covid while New Zealand is amongst the best.

The right politicians at the right time

Good leadership produces good results. I think it's no coincidence that the Netherlands managed to do many good things with social policy and also begin to implement a sensible cycling policy, while it had good progressive leadership. I also think it's no coincidence that New Zealand has managed to do so well in recent years, including with their excellent covid policy. The right leaders can actually make good things happen.

Imagine if things had been reversed. i.e. if New Zealand now had Muldoon while Ardern had been in power in the 1970s, while we had den Uyl now and Rutte's time had been in the 70s. I think there's a fair chance that we would now see New Zealand with the cycling infrastructure and the Netherlands with the good covid result. Neither of these things are inherent to either country.

I don't understand why Dutch people keep voting for Rutte. I also don't understand why New Zealanders kept voting for Muldoon. The same kind of thing can be seen with Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Donald Trump and others. This kind of leadership, blaming others for failure while trying to boost their own achievements, doesn't actually do anyone any good except perhaps those who they give contracts, grants or covid handouts. Public health is not their interest. We need to take politics more seriously. Poor policy does not lead to good outcomes. Progressive policies (equal pay, health service, education, pensions etc.) benefit us all.

So make sure you vote, and make sure you also campaign for positive change. Unfortunately, while the politics of Ardern and Rutte are quite different, the transport policies of their governments are quite similar: Both are focused on electric cars, responding to the huge motoring lobby. This is a mistake. More cars, of any type, are not going to save us from the multitudinous problems caused by cars. Even in countries where we have progressive representatives we still need to campaign for bicycles because the world's most efficient and most healthy form of transport is genuinely part of the solution to these problems and well worth campaigning for.

The above lists of policies per politician are not complete. For example, Muldoon's attempt to maintain New Zealand's 1935 concept of a welfare state perhaps could be seen to fly in the face of some of his other ideas. Read the wikipedia pages of each, as linked above, for a fully picture.