For Shame...

What do Nia Glassie's murderers, Mark Hotchin, and even the new government have in common? A lack of shame and obligation caused by being cut off from the wider community

When the murderers of Nia Glassie were sentenced last month, there was a lot of talk about shame. The three year-old's death was our nation's shame, the cul-de-sac where she lived and died was the street of shame, and the murderers' whanau has been left feeling "deep shame", according to kaumatua Toby Curtis.

But my mother's question stuck with me, as she watched television coverage of brothers Wiremu and Michael Curtis in court. "Where is their shame?", she asked.

Shame is a word and emotion that had a lot of power in western countries, through the second half of the 20th century at least. As we huddled together in small towns or moved to city suburbs after World War II, what the neighbours thought and 'keeping up with the Joneses' mattered. It has a long, strong tradition in Polynesian societies too.

That stigma has been eroded in recent times, and in many ways that's a good thing. If you watched Vera Drake on Sunday night on TVNZ, as I did, you saw a stark reminder of the damage too much shame can do. It was shame that meant young women with unwanted pregnancies couldn't talk about their misery or get safe help, it was shame that kept Drake's family from demanding better treatment from police and better justice from the courts, and it was shame – to some extent – that helped keep the whole oppressive British class system in place so long.

Thankfully, we have tried to become more tolerant and have recognised the corrupting power of shame's evil twin, guilt. We try to be more forgiving of human folly and flaws. But there's good reason to recall that shame has a useful as well as a destructive purpose. If there is no disgrace, no sense of obligation to something bigger than yourself, then anything goes. If it's all about self-gratification and there's no external reproach, what does it matter how you treat others?

In the Glassie case you might point to the way the toddler's father Glassie Glassie walked out on his family after cheating with another woman. Where was his shame? Nia's mother's life spiralled downwards after that, but what about her duty as a mother? Where was her shame? And Wiremu and Michael, and their father William, where was their shame? William, in court this week facing assault charges on Nia, has been described as a "castaway", while his sons had no work and little money, and so sat around most days bored and detached from the world.

They seem to have lacked a sense of community or empathy. They didn't belong to anything bigger than themselves, so how could they feel shame for letting anyone else down? And, to be fair, their community doesn't seem to have shown a heck of a lot of interest in them.

Either way, we have to recognise that some shame, some desire not to let down others, is part of the glue that holds communities and nations together. We can't all be controlled by an internal moral compass, so external obligations to others matter.

Changing social mores is the hardest thing for governments or leaders to do. But laws and actions do set standards, so you've got to wonder at Hanover Group co-owner Mark Hotchin's decision to celebrate his 50th birthday partying with 80 friends at an exclusive Fijian resort where rooms start at $1160 a night.

I'm not equating a thoughtless party with a thoughtless murder, but the comparison is worthy because it comes from the same place of detached self-interest. It shows that a lack of empathy exists both with the very poor and very rich, because both have become isolated from the social standards held by most of the people around them.

Hotchin and Hanover co-owner Eric Watson won praise for coughing up $96 million of their own money and assets to keep the company trading, but have such a callous disregard for their mum and dad investors that they can spend tens of thousands on a single party while those investors are left bereft. Where is their shame?

Surely having failed so many people who put their faith in them, they should be living more humbly than they used to, realising they have a responsibility to their community. But my guess is that they just see it as business. Like the Curtis brothers, they don't see the human tragedy behind their actions. They're so used to their privileges, they didn't see how insulting such a party would look to someone who's entire retirement savings have been frozen.

Look at Australian retail billionaire Gerry Harvey (Harvey Norman), who has said in a recent book that helping "no-hopers" such as homeless people is a waste of money. "You are helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason. They are just a drag on the whole community," he said. The obvious logic that more help for "no-hopers" such as the Curtis brothers might have saved a little girl's life seems to pass him by because he's living in a bubble of wealth.

And what about the directors of Hanover? Herald columnist Brian Gaynor launched a withering attack on them in the Weekend Herald, pointing out that "Hanover Finance paid dividends of $86.5 million in the two years ended June 2008 even though it had net earnings of only $54.5 million during this period". He continued:

How could the board, which consisted of [Greg] Muir, Hotchin, Sir Tipene O'Regan and Bruce Gordon (the latter two resigned on October 30), justify these huge dividends when it was patently clear that Hanover Finance was experiencing major liquidity problems?

Where is their shame?

And while we're at it, let's extend the question to government. We have obligations too to our planet and our children, yet one of the first things this government is going to do is rush through an amendment, under urgency, to delay putting a price on carbon. The government seems detached from the realities – that the British departure tax on travellers to New Zealand is only the beginning unless on climate change we are seen to be "part of the solution rather than the problem". Those are the very words used by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in their briefing to the incoming government released yesterday (Hat Tip: No Right Turn).

The government also seems to be ignoring its obligations to other nations, heading to the hugely important United Nations Climate Change conference in Poznan, Poland not with a solution to the complicated problem of how to cut emissions, but with the aim of trying to wriggle out of our responsibilities. Remember the first TVNZ debate when Key so effectively criticised Labour for fiddling on climate change and not actually enacting policies that actually cut our emissions and improved the climate? So much for those fine words.

Where, I'm left asking, is the shame?