Club Politique by Che Tibby

Nine to Five

Had an interesting conversation the other day. Was asking someone why it was that a fairly select number and type of sports were identified as worthy of state funding and developmental support. I'd heard on the radio that Softball, a code New Zealand has dominated internationally since 1996 wasn't included in 'da money', and I was interested in opinions on why that might be.

To be honest, the reply was little frank and kind of shocked me, but was also quite telling. It went something like, "why fund sports only enjoyed by bogans in Upper Hutt?" Well, I thought, because by any objective measure the Black Sox are world beaters, while the All Blacks haven't made the cut since 1988. So while I'm no expert on sports, I mostly started watching rugby so 'the boys' wouldn't think geeky me was 'a skirt', I have noticed that the old Black Sox do pretty well, as under-reported as they are. Surely they'd deserve the cash a little more than our otherwise fantastic[ally wealthy] rugby chums.

Anyway, seen as I'm no sports expert I thought I'd better not press the issue. But it did get me wondering about something. Thing is, the person I'd been asking about the softball thingy is a public servant. And not just any public servant, but a policy analyst.

I have this theory you see. New Zealand is gradually developing 'class' distinctions, but ever so subtly. I aired this next theory over brunch with another couple of policy analysts and was roundly told off for my impertinence. But all that really did was reinforce two more perceptions, that New Zealanders don't really think in terms of 'class', and that 'class' in the old English mode is probably not the right term (although we'll run with it here for convenience).

I think part of it comes down to the truth that New Zealanders aren't bound by social hierarchy. Just because your Dad worked on the railways there's no reason why you wouldn't be welcomed into a university, and eventually get a white-collar job. This doesn't mean that class doesn't exist in some form though. Sure we don't have the rigid, caste-like social structures that once existed in Great Britain, but we do have a marked blue-white collar split.

Naturally I expect to be told off for claiming that a split exists. I'm sticking to my guns though.

So why the mention? And why the picking on policy analysts?

After a very short 18 months working in the public service I've noticed that there is a definite white-blue collar split. Normally you can notice the difference when you speak to persons working in two distinct areas of the service I'll label under the shorthand, 'policy', and 'operations'.

The difference between the two is fairly simple. 'Operations' people tend to do all the manual stuff. Things like answering the phones in big departments or ministries like Social Development, Inland Revenue, Police, Justice. The ones with people who deal directly with citizens. You could call them the coal face of the public service.

'Policy' people, and again I emphasise I'm simplifying this for non-public servants, will work in these ministries but tend to do all the thinking-type work, and focus their interaction on Parliament. Why? Because that's their job. Things like writing and interpreting legislation, handling Ministerial directives, sorting out Government policies. All that 'smart' stuff.

Now, policy people usually to have tertiary degrees, while operations people tend not to. So there's a white-blue split right there. But is this really a 'class' distinction? I would argue that it is, if not only because the pay scales in either area tend to be pronounced. Plus you get attitudes, likes the one I mentioned above about the Black Sox, bandied around about places like the Hutt Valley, which is where local operations people tend to live.

You might notice that I'm abusing the word 'tend'. A man can't be too careful when stereotyping. And you also can't be too careful around New Zealanders when you start to argue that class distinction exists here in the shaky isles. Social snobbery seems to be one thing, and the suggestion that there are delineations within our marvellous egalitarian society are another. Delineations around education, income, and race.

It's an interesting subject though, if not only because of the offence it seems to generate among white collar people. Meanwhile, blue collar workers are all too aware of it. And why that difference in attitudes exists fascinates me. So, I'll keep an eye on this one, and get back to you.