Nats’ forced labour

About the most interesting thing about the Nats’ benefit policies has been the range of the response on the left, what with National’s swagger about an “unrelenting focus” on getting beneficiaries into work.

Predictably, the government seeks to portray it as a “hoary old beat up on single parents”. And on one level it is.

It is an unashamed appeal to the prejudices of the ‘labour plus’ voters, and those conservatives who are beginning to wonder whether National is adopting so many of Labour’s policies that it risks losing its way. There are an awful lot of NZers in business or work who feel that it’s unfair that some people “get something for nothing”, “don’t have to work for an income like I do”, etc.

As MacDoc points out from his own experience, there are some shirkers amongst the genuinely ill or incapacitated. But no system is perfect, and I prefer policy made on the basis of quality data. MacDoc suggests “an annual (or six monthly) medical with an independent doctor, preferably a specialist.”

So National’s talk is tough. But on the whole, I’m more inclined to the view summed up by 08wire in its post “The big ‘shake up’ welfare policy: Yawn“:

“National says they are “shaking up” the welfare system. In fact they aren’t shaking up anything. Large swathes of their “changes” are current law. And the rest won’t change anything. This is a surrender document dressed up as a call to arms.”

08wire helpfully lists all those aspects of the “policy” announced by National that are already practised. It’s quite a list.

Nor is it all unmitigated beneficiary bashing. National’s promising to  index benefits to the CPI and to raise the amount working beneficiaries can earn before abatement, from $80 a week to $100 a week. Also, a more graduated system of sanctions for people who do not comply with their work obligations. It sure ain’t Ruthanasia.

In principle, a sensitive policy that encourages a return to work is a good thing. According to Children’s Commissioner Cindy Kiro: “paid work was the best way to lift families out of poverty.” (An excellent discussion with Radio NZ’s Kathryn Ryan on how to deal with child poverty here.)

And arguably this is what we’ve had for some years now. Thus Clark says that, “I’m all in favour of supporting single parents to get into work but in the final analysis we have to be guided by what is in the best interest of the children in a particular family.” (Remember, Clark has been criticised in recent years for emphasising the need to support mothers returning to work, so this isn’t just electioneering.)

Bill Ralston recalls Jenny Shipley’s determination as Minster of Social Wefare in the “decent society” National Government of the early 1990s promising to crack down on the supposedly work-shy solo mums and force them back to work. “I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe in now.” It didn’t work, and, in any case, the number of long-term DP beneficiaries is only about 4,000, as Ralston points out.

But then, we’re not talking about Shipley-style punitive beneficiary-bashing. More, what we’ve got now, strengthened in places, and dressed up as something more than it is for electoral purposes. Where have we heard that before?

[Update: Russell Brown seems to come to similar conclusions in his post “Just marketing to the base.”]


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One Response to “Nats’ forced labour”

  1. macdoctor01 Says:

    Good, balanced post, JP. I agree that WINZ has been doing some work with sickness beneficiaries, but ACC has a much more intensive policy which could easily be adapted for sickness and invalid benefits. Nobody wants to hound sick and crippled people (not even the guys in ACT!) However, most beneficiaries would benefit greatly – both financially and in self-esteem – by an eased, graduated return to some kind of work.

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