A visitor from the Hawkes Bay, our very own Children's Commissioner, has just thrown a bomb into the middle of our debate on child poverty this election year... will anyone notice?
In case you missed it, the Children's Commissioner just got a little bit radical. No, go on then, quite a lot radical. The kind of radical that would have Paula Bennett spluttering into her weekend coffee.
Dr Russell Wills has been good at quietly proding and steadily advocating for Kiwi kids. He's urged New Zealanders to tell politicians to spend more on making children healthier, less poor and safer. He's asked the rich and the older to think about making sacrifices for the younger and the needy. When the government wouldn't measure child poverty in this country, he went to the JR McKenzie Trust and got half a million dollars for an annual report of his own.
So he's shown worked away at his own hushed revolution, of sorts, yet refusing to really storm the baricades. He's called for child poverty to be a key election issue without being willing to say the provocative thing that will start a debate.
Until this weekend. Newsrooms have missed the grab so far, but on The Nation Dr Russell Wills said it is "scandalous" that we treat our senior citizens so much better than our children; where one gets a universal benefit, the other doesn't. As a result, three percent of retirees live in hardship, while 18 percent of children do. It's all pretty clear.
So what to do about it? Well this is where the radical begins. Wills said:
I think that our tax and benefit system are actually part of the same thing. And it’s not working. It’s way too complicated. People who have entitlements don’t get them. So we need to simplify it substantially.
But he was only warming up.
Repeating a line he's taken before, he called for a Universal Child Benefit until a child is three years-old; and after that state support, if needed, should switch from money for the baby to money to help the parents back to work.
But then came the headline. Benefits, he said, are just too low:
Lisa Owen: So what do you think should happen with the level of payment?
Russell Wills: We need to decide as a society what an adequate standard of living is for children. Not just to be fed, but to participate, particularly for our youngest kids because that’s when they’re most vulnerable. So what the science tells us is it’s about where it was when I was delivering Dad’s scripts around the poor part of Maraenui, back in the late 80s and 90s. So that’s roughly half as much again as it is now. So let’s restore it back to where it was when we were kids. I don’t think that’s unachievable.
In real terms, restore it back to where it was?
Wills stepped outside the accepted political discourse, further out than anyone except Mana has gone, and said benefit levels must increase, and increase significantly. By as much as 50 percent.
This is a man who, when first appointed, Paula Bennett praised for his experience and expertise:
“He understands the issue New Zealand families are facing because he sees it every day, it’s that real-world connection that makes a dual role the right option".
I'm guessing she's not going to be delighted with where that real-world connection has taken him.
In the 1990s, consecutive National governments argued for the need of a substantial gap between what you could earn on a benefit and what you could earn in work. You'll remember Ruth Richardson and the 'mother of all budgets'. After a quarter of a century of frozen benefits, in real terms, Wills says we've gone too far and the poor now are much worse off than the poor then. And it's time to act. It's not unachievable.
Which is laying it on the line. Here's hope his line gets noticed by journalists in the next few days, because who can remember when a public servant, even a part-time one, was so outspoken? And if that doesn't warrant a national conversation, I don't know what does.