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Avoiding the reality of others

The other day I was taking the bus to the Port Hills as I often do. On the way I usually read a book and enjoy the trip. But this time it was not possible. There were too many distractions. A young woman loudly discussed her circle of friends on her phone, analysing the tensions between the friends. Soon after she left a father boarded the bus with his teenage daughter. Hardly were they seated when he received a phone call from the daughter’s social worker. It seemed that he was a solo father with a rebellious teenage daughter. The daughter continually tried to insert herself in the conversation between the father and the social worker.
After that phone call ended, the daughter tried every way possible to denigrate her father publicly. Clearly the behaviour of the girl was very difficult. The father did not seem to come from an educated background, and he definitely had no way of getting through to that girl. I felt sorry for the social worker who has to deal with such cases. With such drama playing out on the bus I had no opportunity to concentrate on my book and the bus ride was not as pleasant as I expected it. But then I thought that this is reality for a lot of families in our country. This is how many people live. And maybe it was good to have that insight.

At that point I wondered whether these unpleasant, but real happenings were the reasons why politicians did not like to go by public bus. I remembered how the Wellington Regional Council had given bus cards to new government ministers last year, so that they could travel between the airport and the parliamentary precinct by public bus. When asked whether he or his ministers would go on the bus, the new prime minister scoffed at the idea. They were a new government getting on with things; travelling on public buses would only distract from that. I wondered whether ministers did not want to travel on public buses exactly because they did not want to witness such scenes as I had seen.

Of course, in many Scandinavian and some central European countries government ministers regularly travel on public transport. Doing that they may also be exposed to social realities. However, here in New Zealand, buses are considered “looser cruisers” and successful people often do not want to associate with those who have not made it.

Sue Bagshaw suggested that politicians should get appropriately qualified by spending a year on an unemployment benefit and living in rented accommodation. That would allow them to experience the real world of many people. Maybe one step to getting politicians to experience the reality of life would be by occasionally rubbing shoulders with the normal population outside of a controlled environment, for example by going by bus.

Of course, it’s easy to judge politicians. I sometimes also avoid experiencing the reality of so many other people. I wonder how we can get to see how others live, without necessarily exposing ourselves to difficult situations. I think it’s important to be in public places. Still, you won’t get me to a disco – I know those are important for many people, but whenever I’ve been I felt even less sympathy for the people who frequent them.